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Blasting Begins on Coal River Mountain

Mountaintop Removal Mining to Destroy 6,600 Acres-and Wind Potential

by Jesse Jenkins

Appalachian community advocates and environmentalists across the nation are expressing outrage that mountaintop removal coal mining operations have begun on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, a mountain that has become symbolic in the nationwide campaign to end mountaintop removal mining. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection told the Charleston Gazette on Monday that blasting had begun last week, confirming local reports of blasts and smoke that were witnessed on Friday near the Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, the largest slurry dam in Appalachia with the capacity to hold 8.2 billion gallons. Slurry is the by-product of coal washing and processing operations and contains high levels of toxic heavy metals like mercury, selenium and lead.

For the last two years, local residents have campaigned for the opportunity to place a commercial-scale wind farm on Coal River Mountain instead of the mountaintop removal mining that has been permitted by the state. The Coal River Wind campaign has focused on asking West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin to rescind the mining permits for Coal River Mountain. So far, Governor Manchin has denied the group's request.

"The Coal River Wind Campaign has been a symbol of hope for the people of the Coal River Valley," said Lorelei Scarbro, organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch. "My neighbors are excited about the idea of jobs that allow them to produce energy in a way that is sustainable. Coal River Mountain, the last standing mountain in the valley, should remain intact as a symbol for a new day in the Appalachian coalfields."

With no response from Governor Manchin's office, residents and environmental groups are now looking to the Obama administration to intervene. A wind resources assessment and economic study commissioned by Coal River Mountain Watch in 2008 revealed that Coal River Mountain-which has the highest peaks ever slated for mining in the state-has enough wind potential to provide electricity for over 85,000 homes and would create more jobs over the expected life of the turbines than the proposed mountaintop removal mine. The study also stated that the proposed wind farm would help diversify the local economy in an area historically dependent upon temporary coal mining jobs, and would pump $20 million per year in direct local spending during construction and $2 million per year thereafter.

Current plans for mountaintop removal operations would eventually impact 6,600 acres on Coal River Mountain and fill in 18 valleys with the resulting waste and debris. Over 10 square miles of what environmentalists call the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the United States would be affected. Bo Webb, a resident of town of Peach Tree-a community directly downhill from an existing mountaintop removal operation near Coal River Mountain-said, "My community is already being forced to endure silica blasting dust, boulders, mudslides and floods from a mountaintop removal operation on Cherry Pond Mountain. The annihilation of Coal River Mountain will leave us trapped in the middle beneath both mountains of destruction."

In addition to the economic and environmental concerns, residents are worried about the stability of blasting less than two hundred yards from a coal sludge impoundment. According to coalimpoundment.org-maintained by Wheeling Jesuit University-the Brushy Fork impoundment is a Class C dam, in which "failure would cause possible loss of human life." If the Brushy Fork impoundment were to fail, the first communities in danger would be the towns of Pettus and Whitesville, where residents would have 12-18 minutes to evacuate before they were overtaken by floodwaters and slurry. The emergency evacuation plan, should the dam be breached, calls for notifying residents "personally," or "by loudspeaker or bullhorn, or other means deemed necessary."

In 2000, a coal slurry impoundment owned by a Massey subsidiary failed and spilled over 300 million gallons of slurry into the Big Sandy River in Martin County, KY. The EPA called the dam failure the "worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi." According to EPA testing, the spill-more than 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster-destroyed destroyed nearly all aquatic life for more than 50 miles downstream of the spill. And in 1972, a 132-million gallon impoundment in Logan County, W.Va., failed, killing 125 people and leaving over 4,000 more homeless.

The permits for mining on Coal River Mountains are owned by Massey Energy, one the largest coal mining companies in central Appalachia. In 2008, Massey paid $20 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the largest settlement to date for violating the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times in seven years.

According to a recent story by Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith, Google Earth has taken interest in the plight of Coal River Mountain and created a video about the Coal River Wind Project to present at the climate talks to be held in Copenhagen in December.

"What kind of message will it send to the international community if this priceless mountain with so much renewable energy potential is currently being destroyed for a decade's worth of coal?" asked Matt Wasson, Program Director for Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental organization. "It would look a lot more like a continuation of the last administration's policies, rather than a commitment to a new energy future."

For more information, please visit www.coalriverwind.org and www.iLoveMountains.org/coalriver.

 

 

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