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The Coalfield Uprising | The Nation

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The Coalfield Uprising

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No one understands the limits of regulation better than Bo Webb (unrelated to Lora and Steve Webb), a coal miner's son and Vietnam veteran who lives under a mountaintop removal operation in Naoma, West Virginia, on land that has been in his family since 1830. "Nearly four decades of mountaintop removal regulatory history have taught me one thing," he says. "The devastation from mountaintop removal can never be regulated but must be abolished."

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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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In an open letter to President Obama written this past spring, Webb spelled out the looming situation: "My family and I, like many American citizens in Appalachia, are living in a state of terror. Like sitting ducks waiting to be buried in an avalanche of mountain waste, or crushed by a falling boulder, we are trapped in a war zone within our own country."

Webb's hollow has become a base for numerous organizations, including Coal River Mountain Watch, direct-action groups like Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero, and national environmental groups like Rainforest Action Network (RAN). "I've seen oil spills in the Amazon, walked in clear-cuts so large they can be seen from outer space and have toured some of the nastiest toxic waste dumps imaginable," says RAN executive director Michael Brune, whose national organization plays a full-time role in the coalfields movement. "But when it comes to complete and hopeless environmental devastation, nothing compares to a mountaintop removal site."

On June 23 Webb helped to organize a high-profile rally and nonviolent sit-in in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, where 94-year-old former Congressman Ken Hechler, NASA climatologist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah, Brune and thirty-one coalfield residents were arrested at a coal prep plant. "Mountaintop removal is a crime against local people, nature, our children and our planet," Hansen declared.

A day later, Webb was informed that the blasting above his home, temporarily halted after federal regulators cited it for violations, would resume. "I received a call that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which determines the permits, gave the green light to renew the blasting closer to the coal seam, in an area that is even closer to our homes," he said.

This blatant circumvention of regulatory measures came as no surprise to Webb, who has seen the coal industry's influence penetrate not only the WVDEP but also the state judiciary. Earlier in June, the state Supreme Court upheld a decision to construct a second toxic coal silo near a school playground in Sundial, which sits down-slope of a 2.8 billion-gallon coal-slurry impoundment close to a mountaintop removal blasting site. A week before the decision, the US Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that a Big Coal-financed justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court had engaged in an unconstitutional conflict-of-interest vote.

Thanks in large part to the work of coalfield activists, such state-level failures have earned notice at the federal level. On June 11 the Obama administration released an interagency plan for "unprecedented steps to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining."

"The steps we are taking today are a firm departure from the previous administration's approach to mountaintop coal mining, which failed to protect our communities, water and wildlife in Appalachia," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

While carefully crafted rhetoric from government officials made for good headlines, it reminded coalfield residents and environmentalists of the regulatory compromise that granted federal approval for mountaintop removal in the first place. Webb worried that the Obama administration had been lured into a familiar trap.

On August 3, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act with an air of concern. Admitting it was "a disappointing effort" and a "watered-down" bill, Carter recognized that the historic legislation contained loopholes, allowing mountaintop removal while cracking down on other mining abuses.

For many coalfield activists, no one was more responsible for those loopholes than West Virginia Democratic Representative Nick Rahall. On the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the bill, Rahall proudly recounted taking the House Natural Resources Committee chair, Morris Udall, to the Appalachian coalfields, where Rahall pushed the Arizona Congressman to insert language permitting mountaintop removal operations.

Rahall, who is now serving his seventeenth term in Congress, remains a fierce proponent of the practice. He still touts putting golf courses and shopping centers on flattened ranges for "higher uses," even though a 2002 EPA study pointed out that less than 3 percent of all mountaintop removal sites had been returned to any post-mining uses. In July he jumped out of a plane with the US Army Parachute Team at a "Friends of Coal" auto show in Beckley, West Virginia.

When the EPA announced its intention to bring greater scrutiny to mountaintop removal permits this past spring, Rahall made the rounds with top-level environmental officials and members of Obama's staff to fight against any reviews. The EPA clearly listened to his pitch. Reflecting on the sign-off on forty-two out of forty-eight surface-mining permits, many of which were for mountaintop removal, acting assistant administrator Michael Shapiro curiously fell back on misconstrued economic arguments. Even though mountaintop removal operations account for less than 8 percent of US coal consumption and rely mainly on nonunion and mechanized labor in areas of entrenched poverty, in May Shapiro told Rahall in a letter, "I understand the importance of coal mining in Appalachia for jobs, the economy and meeting the nation's energy needs."

A month later, as Ken Ward reported in the Charleston Gazette, a breakthrough study by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx found that "coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs." According to the study, "The coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region," but the researchers also estimated the cost of premature mining-related deaths across the Appalachian coalfields at a yearly average of $42 billion.

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