AP PHOTO/JEFF GENTNER
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.