Following the news that EPA would let 42 mountaintop mining operations proceed in Appalachia, protesters took to three West Virginia mining sites on Saturday, chaining themselves to giant coal trucks, draping a sign on a coal sludge pond, and taking a public stand against a practice that is threatening their homes and devastating their mountains.
“We’d like to send a clear message to the federal government and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that just because our governor is down there lobbying for the coal industry doesn’t mean the people of West Virginia support it,” said Matt Noerpel of Mountain Justice.
Seventeen of the 75 protesters were arrested, including two women who were still jailed on $2,000 bond this morning for kayaking onto a coal sludge impoundment at Brushy Fork with a sign that read, “West Virginia Says No More Toxic Sludge.”
“They left a banner on top of 7 billion gallons of toxic waste and they got charged with littering,” Noerpel said.
The Brushy Fork impoundment, with its billions of gallons of coal sludge, is a source of fear for residents living downhill from the site.They remember deadly slurry pond failures in the past and the recent images (at right) from Kingston, Tenn., where a impoundment break in December sent a river of toxic sludge from a TVA site sweeping through homes and into creeks.
The immediate threat at Brushy Fork is a plan by Marfork Mining, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, to blast the top off Coal River Mountain, a few hundred yards from the dam holding back the coal sludge.
Area residents have reason to worry. The impoundment sits atop several old underground mines. If concussions from the blasting cause those mines to collapse and the impoundment breaks, the coal sludge would flood down the valley and sweep through the town of Pettus within 12 minutes and Whitesville within 18 minutes, according to the coal company’s own calculations. Nearly 1,000 lives would be at risk.
Activists had hoped the EPA would stop mountaintop mining operations in West Virginia under the Clean Water Act for the way the practice degrades streams and water supplies used by the residents of Appalachia. The EPA said earlier this year that it would more closely review the permits, but in the last two weeks it decided to allow all but six of the 48 it reviewed to proceed.
"We are forced to take action today because we have exhausted our legislative and litigatory options," said Charles Suggs, an activist from Raleigh County, home to Coal River Mountain and the Brushy Fork impoundment.
"We have walked the halls and pounded the doors of our state and national capitols, asked the DEP to complete studies, met with the EPA, filed lawsuits, and what happens? Our West Virginia legislature passes bills to let the destruction continue, and opposes bills that would stop poisoning our water and bring permanent, sustainable economic development to the state."
There are still efforts underway in several states to stop utilities from purchasing mountaintop removal coal and in Congress to pass a Clean Water Protection Act that would restrict how strip mines could dispose of the destroyed mountaintops.
Sierra Club, disappointed in the EPA’s decision, has also called on the White House Council on Environmental Quality to take action to stop mountaintop removal.
Local activists aren’t giving up, either. They’ve proposed a wind farm for Coal River Mountain that could generate 328 megawatts of power. They’re also encouraging banks to reconsider their support for mountaintop mines. Last week, activist Larry Gibson, whose West Virginia home overlooks the mine on Kayford Mountain, took the concerns of his neighbors to JPMorgan Chase’s shareholders meeting, where he urged the bank to stop funding Massey’s operations.
Protest photos by Chris Irwin, Margaret Killjoy