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The Coalfield Uprising | The Nation

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The Coalfield Uprising

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AP PHOTO/JEFF GENTNERA mountaintop removal coal-mining site at Kayford Mountain, West Virginia

About the Author

Jeff Biggers
Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, forthcoming from...

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When the Environmental Protection Agency declared this year on September 11 that all pending mountaintop removal mining permits in four Appalachian states stood in violation of the Clean Water Act and required further review, Lora Webb didn't have time to join in any celebrations. As she and her husband, Steve, a coal miner, packed up their possessions and left his family's ancestral property outside Lindytown, West Virginia, Lora was more concerned about finding a place to sleep that night.

For the past few years, ever since a massive twenty-story dragline landed on a ridge near their home, the Webbs had endured twice-daily, bone-rattling explosions and the quasi-apocalyptic storms of coal dust and fly rock that blanketed their home and garden. Lindytown's creeks and mountain hollows no longer exist, and a once-thriving community has been reduced to a ghost town. "It's unreal. It's like we're living in a war zone," Lora Webb told a local newspaper last fall.

By the spring of this year, the Webbs were one of the last holdouts in the area. Hoping to avoid displacement, they pleaded with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and various federal agencies to enforce mining laws. Lora Webb even toted a jar of coal dust to Capitol Hill. In the end, though, they threw up their hands in bewilderment at the government's inaction and sold their beloved home to Massey Energy, the Richmond-based corporation that runs the nearby Twilight mountaintop removal site. Then they were issued a sixty-day order to evacuate.

The temporarily homeless Webbs are a stark example that mountaintop removal does more than "likely cause water quality impacts," as the EPA has determined. More than 3.5 million pounds of explosives rip daily across the ridges and historic mountain communities in West Virginia; a similar amount of explosives are employed in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Mountaintop removal operations have destroyed more than 500 mountains and 1.2 million acres of forest in our nation's oldest and most diverse range, and jammed more than 1,200 miles of streams with mining waste.

In cautious but no uncertain terms, the Obama administration has finally acknowledged these hazards, and has taken some important steps toward mitigating the damage. On June 11 the Council on Environmental Quality chief, Nancy Sutley, declared that the administration "has serious concerns about the impacts of mountaintop coal mining on our natural resources and on the health and welfare of the Appalachian communities."

Yet, while officials are framing the issue as a manageable environmental problem, mountaintop removal has also caused considerable human suffering and one of the largest displacements of US citizens since the nineteenth century, a fact the government has not adequately addressed. The Webbs are just one family among an untold number of Americans over the past four decades who have been forced by the coal industry to relocate. And the death of 22-year-old Joshua McCormick--who succumbed to kidney cancer on September 23 in the Prenter Hollow area in West Virginia, one of the most notorious coal slurry-contaminated and Clean Water Act-violated places in the nation--was a reminder to area residents of the growing death toll in the coalfields.

While the EPA's September announcement clearly signaled a return of science and law to the Appalachian coalfields after a Bush-era hiatus, the festering criminal implications of environmental and human rights violations from mountaintop removal remain a test for the well-meaning but Beltway-bound environmentalists in the Obama administration. Will they muster the political wherewithal to break King Coal's stranglehold on the region's fate?

Coalfield residents are not waiting for the Obama administration to come to their rescue. In fact, in the past year a surging activist and citizen lobbyist campaign has emerged as a fierce counterforce to the Big Coal lobby. The leaders of this growing and increasingly powerful movement are not content with a new era of stricter regulations in the coalfields. Their aim is to abolish mountaintop removal once and for all.

According to Stephanie Pistello, national field coordinator of Appalachian Voices and legislative associate for the Alliance for Appalachia (a coalition of thirteen citizens' groups from five states, including the Sierra Club's Central Appalachian Environmental Justice Program), more than 200 coalfield residents have traveled to Washington this year to tell Congress and the Obama administration about the true costs of mountaintop removal. In May a group of residents sent an urgent letter to the EPA and the Interior Department citing numerous examples of the WVDEP's lack of enforcement and negligence, and calling for federal action "to take primacy from a failed agency." Over the past year, residents have launched more than a dozen civil disobedience actions throughout the region: in August a group of coalfield activists chained themselves to the doors of the WVDEP office, and two tree-sitters halted a week of blasting at a Massey Energy mountaintop removal site in the Coal River Valley.

If anything, the EPA's surprising move in September only strengthened the activists' resolve. Three days after the announcement, the Alliance for Appalachia returned to Washington with a group of residents to meet with the EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department and members of Congress.

"While we appreciate the EPA making this step to bring back enforcement of the Clean Water Act," says Lorelei Scarbro, an organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch and a coal miner's widow whose garden and hillside orchards border a proposed mountaintop removal site in West Virginia, "we will continue to come to Washington, DC, until mountaintop removal's irreversible devastation to our communities and waterways is halted."

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