Winds of Change Newsletter, August 2009 See sidebar for table of contents
OVEC Organizer Testifies at Senate MTR Hearing
On June 25, OVEC organizer Maria Gunnoe and scientist Margaret Palmer were two of the people asked to testify before the Water and Wildlife subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for a congressional hearing titled "The Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining on Water Quality in Appalachia."
In announcing the hearing, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), chairman of the subcommittee, said, "Mountaintop coal mining is a long-term assault on Appalachias environment, economy, culture and the health of its citizens. We must put an end to this mining method that has buried more than a thousand miles of streams and created untold threats to some of the most beautiful and ecologically significant regions of our country."
Cardin and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have introduced legislation, the Appalachia Restoration Act, which, along with the Clean Water Protection Act in the House, would prohibit the dumping of mine debris into streams.
"Its not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal," Alexander said. "Saving our mountaintops is important to me."
OVEC brought a van-load of folks to D.C. to attend the hearing. Other members of the groups that form the Alliance for Appalachia made the trip to D.C., too.
Our allies from Earthjustice in D.C., as well as other D.C.-based environmental groups, also turned out. Scores of mountaintop removal opponents stood in line for hours in order to secure seats in the hearing room.
Coal industry groups bussed in people for the hearing, too, but none arrived in time to be in line for seats in the main hearing room. All had to watch the proceedings on TV screens in overflow rooms.
Many of us in line couldnt help but be delighted at what unfolded when West Virginia Coal Association vice presidents Chris Hamilton and Jason Bostic and National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich attempted to jump to the front of the line. A Capitol Hill policeman sent them to the back of the line, despite their protestations that they were Friends of Coal (FOC), that they had reserved seats, etc.
The officer knew there were no reserved seats. The FOCers had to walk back down the long line, past all of us with our I Love Mountains and Stop Mountaintop Removal buttons. Sorry, boys, this isnt the West Virginia State Capitol, where you can march in wherever you want.
Randy Pomponio, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was the first witness to testify at the hearing.
He talked about something OVEC staff and volunteers have been trying to get West Virginia legislators to grasp for years the value of ecosystem services that intact forests provide, such as flood control, soil erosion protection, soil building, water purification and more.
"In addition to the popularly appreciated wildlife, recreational, and timber resources associated with forests systems, many ecological services can be attributed to forest systems. We are just beginning to understand and assign value to these ecological services," Pomponio said.
Palmer, who is an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, told lawmakers that the headwater streams destroyed by mountaintop removal even ephemeral streams perform vital tasks like water purification and nutrient cycling, processes essential to the health of food webs downstream.
She noted that contamination from mining travels great distances downstream, affecting the health of fish and other life that depend on the water. She was also sharply critical of West Virginias attempts to mitigate the damage by building new streams, which she said were really nothing more than rocky ditches.
"Headwater streams," Palmer said, "are exponentially more important than their size would suggest Is there evidence that mitigation (replacing natural streams with man-made ditches) is actually working? Im very sorry to say that unfortunately its not working. Mountaintop removal mining causes permanent environmental impacts."
Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, defended his agency and the coal industry and testified that state regulators have "gone above and beyond the EPAs recommended water quality parameters."
OVECs Gunnoe told the senators about the repeated flooding, the water contamination and the noise- and air- pollution horrors associated with living near a mountaintop removal operation.
"Mountaintop removal is absolutely not about jobs," Gunnoe said. "Mountaintop removal is a human rights issue. My children and I have a right as U.S. citizens to clean water, and that right is being taken away from us."
"There is neither sufficient social nor economic justification for such unalterable environmental and ecological insults," Paul Sloan, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, testified. "In Appalachia, mountaintop removal and water quality are incompatible."
Cardin plans to hold additional hearings on the topic. For now, the proposal remains under consideration.