The Coalfield Uprising

The Coalfield Uprising

Appalachian activists are gaining ground in a campaign to ban mountaintop removal mining.


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

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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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