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The Coalfield Uprising | The Nation

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The Coalfield Uprising

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The Obama administration remained indecisive throughout the summer, publicly announcing its intentions to bolster regulatory oversight while quietly allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to continue issuing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal. As Ward reported on August 11, the EPA privately approved eight valley fill waste piles proposed by CONSOL Energy. "Copies of key permit documents were not yet being made public, despite a promise from the Obama White House of increased transparency in the permit review process," Ward wrote.

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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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A day later, when a federal court struck down an earlier move by the Interior Department to reverse a Bush-era manipulation of the 1983 "stream buffer" rule--a rule designed to restrict the dumping of mine waste into streams--the Obama administration could only manage a weak commitment to "improve mining practices" within the context of the court's ruling. In essence, a kinder, gentler mountaintop removal would blast on.

Appearing on Diane Rehm's National Public Radio talk-show on September 3, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson openly agreed with a caller, Ohio Citizen Action organizer Kate Russell. Russell cited University of Maryland scientist Dr. Margaret Palmer's Senate hearing testimony that "the impacts of mountaintop removal with valley fills are immense and irreversible, and there are no scientifically credible plans for mitigating these impacts."

"Let me first start by acknowledging that Kate's right," Jackson responded. "Much of the science shows that when you have a lot of, when you start to see a preponderance of stream miles filled in, you start to see higher conductivity levels, which is indicative of higher suspended solids, which starts to affect the aquatic ecosystems sort of from the bottom up."

An internal memo in June by WVDEP biologist Doug Wood provided even more startling conclusions: "We now have clear evidence that in some streams that drain mountaintop coal quarry valley fills, the entire order Ephemeroptera (mayflies) has been extirpated, not just certain genera of this order," Wood wrote. "The loss of an order of insects from a stream is taxonomically equivalent to the loss of all primates (including humans) from a given area. The loss of two insect orders is taxonomically equivalent to killing all primates and all rodents through toxic chemicals."

One thing was certain: the reckoning on mountaintop removal had come due for the Obama administration.

As the regulatory games stretch on, coalfield residents and their national allies have redoubled their efforts to hold the EPA and the Obama administration accountable for enforcing the Clean Water Act, and for bringing the thirty-eight-year terror of mountaintop removal mining to an end.

Activists like Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner from Sylvester, West Virginia, and a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, are planning an action in October to call attention to the Webbs' devastated homeland. "In six months, one will never know Lindytown was ever there, that a community once served as home to many families," Nelson says. "We plan to hold a vigil for Lindytown. I guess you could call it a funeral, for all the families that used to love this land and considered it as home."

Invoking the image of the legendary Mary "Mother" Jones and her campaign as an octogenarian on behalf of West Virginia coal miners and their children in the 1920s, 81-year-old military veteran Roland Micklem recently announced a twenty-five-mile march and nonviolent sit-in, to be led by senior citizens on October 8 at a Massey Energy mountaintop removal site in Kanawha County.

Along with encouraging investment in the region for green jobs and renewable energy sources, the Alliance for Appalachia plans to mount an even more aggressive citizens' lobby campaign to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would in effect end mountaintop removal by halting the creation of valley fills and polluted waterways from mine waste.

"In order to counter the Goliath-like, multimillion-dollar coal industry lobby, the Alliance for Appalachia has organized monthly citizen lobby weeks," says Stephanie Pistello. "As a result, the Clean Water Protection Act has a record 157 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, and for the first time in history, we have legislation before the Senate, the Appalachia Restoration Act, which has eight co-sponsors."

"The EPA has the authority to veto the permits," Jackson reminded NPR listeners in September. "The permits themselves are issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. So EPA plays sort of an oversight role there." By the end of November, after receiving the Army Corps revisions of the permits, Jackson and the EPA should let the coalfield residents--and the nation--know how far that oversight extends.

"It looks like EPA is prepared to do everything it can, within the existing regulatory framework, to protect the mountains and people of Appalachia," says Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens' organization in the state where more than half the designated permits are located. "This is great news, but it will take more than regulations to end the destruction. Mountaintop removal and valley fills should be banned."

Back in Washington, planning the next lobby week of coalfield residents and pinning their hopes on Congress to move forward on the Clean Water Protection Act, Pistello concludes: "The people of Appalachia are asking for mountaintop removal to be abolished, not regulated. We will continue to bring residents to DC as long as mountains are being bombed and water runs black."

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