Appalachia’s Best Hope for Ending Mountaintop Mining

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Follow the Appalachian Mountains by plane from West Virginia to Tennessee, and you’ll see the scars left by mountaintop mining – huge gray gouges where coal companies stripped away the trees and blew off the tops of mountains to get at the coal inside.

These once lush ridges are now bereft of economic resources. The natural vistas that could have drawn tourists are gone, and what remains of the mined mountains and filled-in valleys are too heavily damaged to support reforestation, communities or jobs.

Families who have lived in these valleys for generations have been left to suffer the consequences as unearthed minerals and heavy metals, dumped into stream beds as mining waste, leach into their drinking water and poison their wells.

"People around here are swiggin’ down contaminated water all day long,” says Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia. “Our soil’s contaminated. A garden that we’d gardened for all the 37 years that I’ve been there is now covered with coal slurry. You can’t grow food in that. My yard was completely washed out. My fruit trees are gone."

In three decades of mountaintop mining, coal companies have flattened more than 1 million acres of Appalachia. They pushed the “overburden” into the valleys, filling more than 700 miles of streams and degrading hundreds of miles more with traces of nickel, lead, cadmium, iron and selenium.

Yet, lawmakers in these states are heavily pro-coal and resistant to restricting the industry.

For the fourth year in a row, Kentucky ended its legislative session on Friday with a bill that could protect the state’s streams still sitting untouched in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. The committee chairman who decides which legislation goes to a vote, Rep. Jim Gooch, has been a member of the Western Kentucky Coal Association.

In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen has publicly said that he can’t ban mountaintop removal.

Appalachia’s best hope for ending mountaintop mining may have to come from the outside.

Three states – North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia – are turning up the pressure this year with legislation that would ban or phase out the purchase of any coal from mountaintop mining operations.

Opponents of mountaintop mining are also counting on the Obama administration and Congress.

Calling for Federal Action

This week, more than 140 Appalachia residents are in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would limit how coal companies could use mountain streams as waste dumps. They are also asking supporters elsewhere to call Congress today and urge their representatives to sign on as co-sponsors of the act.

The Clean Water Act of 1977 should have protected the streams – it allowed some fill material in waterways, but not waste disposal. But in 2002, the Bush administration’s Army Corps of Engineers changed the definition of "fill material" to include mining waste.

The Clean Water Protection Act was written shortly afterward to close that loophole. So far, it has failed to get through Congress, but this year, supporters have hope. The bill has a coal state congressman on its side – when it was reintroduced on March 4, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky joined Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington and Frank Pallone of New Jersey as a sponsor.

Environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. described the bill this way:

“The Clean Water Protection Act is the first broad Congressional initiative aimed at reversing the Bush Administration’s eight-year effort to savage our national waterways and the popular laws that protect them.”

Two other federal laws that could have limited mountaintop removal were also subverted during the Bush administration.

Mining companies were able to secure waivers to get around one of the laws, the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which requires the restoration of mined land to its approximate original shape – not easy to do when the mountaintop is gone.

The Army Corps of Engineers helped them get around the other. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires environmental impact studies, but a federal appeals court delivered a blow last month when it found that the Army Corps could legally bypass studying the environmental impact on areas downstream from a mining project.

Killing the Market for Mountaintop-Mined Coal

If environmental protection and mining laws can’t keep the Appalachian Mountains safe, some lawmakers are hoping that the marketplace can.

North Carolina should hold some clout in that arena. Sixty-one percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants located in North Carolina, and 50 percent of those plants’ coal comes from mountaintop mining.

A bill introduced in the North Carolina legislature two weeks ago would order utilities in the state to stop using mountaintop-mined coal, and it would require them to file a monthly report tracking the source of their coal to make sure they complied. Any utility found to be in violation wouldn’t be allowed to charge its customer to recover the cost of the mountaintop-mined coal.

Maryland is considering similar legislation. The bill, which also sets requirements for building new power plants, simply states: An electric company that operates a coal-fired generating station in the state may not purchase or use coal extracted by mountaintop removal. The restriction would go into effect in October.

Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains Preservation Act would allow its utilities to phase out their mountaintop-mined coal, then completely ban it in seven years. The state also goes after its own coal plants – the bill would place a moratorium on new coal-fired plants in Georgia effective immediately and lasting at least five years.

Technology has made mountaintop coal mining easier to track. The map below is a screenshot from Google Earth, which Appalachian Voices has used to track the coal dug from Appalachian mountaintops to the power plants that use it. Type in your zip code to see if your power company is using, too.


Photo: United Mountain Defense; Graphics: Appalachian Voices