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Flooding in Appalachia Stirs Outrage Over a Mining Method
Published on Monday, August 12, 2002 in the New York Times
Flooding in Appalachia Stirs Outrage Over a Mining Method
by Francis X. Clines
 

McROBERTS, Ky. People in Chopping Block Hollow, an old coal hamlet that corkscrews handsomely down the side of Dunham Mountain, used to speak in awe of "the 50-year flood" that swept through their homes after a drenching storm in 1957.

But that historic reference has been washed away this year as residents have repeatedly had to muck out their houses and businesses. They aim their anger up the mountain at a mining technique aptly named mountaintop removal.

"Every time we get a rain now it's the 50-year flood, what with all the destruction coming off that mountain," says Betty Collins, who complained of shoveling four-inch-deep mud and mine silt off her property after five rainfalls since May.

Hollow dwellers insist that the lucrative blasting and grinding away of the mountaintop for its coal in the last four years have stripped their hillsides of vegetation, obliterated streams and drainage patterns and turned the hollow into an overflowing funnel every time rain drains off the mining plateau being created above their houses.

Coal producers dispute that, insisting that mountaintop removal actually makes them more sensitive to the communities below. But residents here say company efforts at reclamation are cosmetic, and they hoot at the industry's environmental awards to mountaintop mining companies.

"The company and government inspectors tell us the rain's an act of God," said Betty Banks, who lives here. "Well it wasn't God who went up on our mountain with a 'dozer to leave it naked. They are destroying us here." Ms. Banks said her property had not flooded in 40 years before decapitation of the mountain.

Complaints from communities whose residents once earned most of their livelihoods from coal are increasing across Appalachia. People resent living in the shadow and dust of mountaintop removal, with waste routinely dumped into the valleys. Here, as in other back-road hamlets, people are starting to organize. They are forming a local chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a nonprofit citizens' lobby that recently scored a stunning court victory against the corporate and political interests in Appalachia long known as Big Coal.

In response to complaints by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth about mountaintop removal on the West Virginia border, Judge Charles Haden II of Federal District Court in Charleston, W.Va., ordered a halt last May to new mining permits. The permits had allowed hundreds of streams to be buried under rock and dirt in violation of environmental laws, Judge Haden said. His ruling is being appealed, and business and political leaders predict a reversal.

But the lawsuit is becoming a rallying flag in the coal regions of Appalachia. Judge Haden's name is invoked with the reverence accorded in the old days to Joe Hill, the mine union martyr.

Gale A. Norton, the interior secretary, recently sought an office meeting in Appalachia with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and six other groups critical of mountaintop removal. But the groups declined, proposing instead a longer day to see the problems firsthand.

"We respectfully decline to let our organizations be used in what would be mostly a public relations gimmick," said Frank Young, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. The groups complained that the government was intent on weakening laws against the abuses of mountaintop mining.

"There's good mining and there's bad mining," said Lucious Thompson, who lives in Tom Biggs Hollow nearby. Mr. Thompson joined Kentuckians for the Commonwealth when he found his land disrupted from above.

"Mountaintop removal takes the coal quick, 24 hours every day, making my streams disappear, with the blasting knocking a person out of bed and the giant 'dozers beep-beeping all night so you cannot sleep," Mr. Thompson said with the authority of a gray-bearded retiree from Appalachia's underground mines.

With underground mining, coal miners led quieter, more pastoral lives above harsh workplaces deep in the ground and far out of sight. With mountaintop removal, a fast, high-volume process that uses mammoth machinery to decapitate the coal-rich hills that help define the hollows, the residents have become witnesses more than miners.

"They make monster funnels of our villages," said Carroll Smith, judge-executive the top elected county official in Letcher County, Ky. The hollows in his county that adjoin mountaintop removal sites have had some of the worst flooding.

"They haven't been a real good neighbor at all," Mr. Smith said of the mountaintop mining company.

The company, TECO Energy Inc. of Tampa, Fla., firmly rejects that assessment. "Saying we're not good neighbors that's very upsetting to the people who work for TECO Coal," said Laura Plumb, a company spokeswoman.

Years of letting residents dump garbage into the streams and permitting home building to impede waterways had contributed more to the flooding than had mountaintop mining, Ms. Plumb said.

"Mining does take a toll on the land while it's occurring," Ms. Plumb conceded. "However, when we're done we reclaim the area to better standards than before."

Such statements compound the local fury.

"State authorities tell us what the company is doing is legal, and I tell them it may be legal, but it's wrong," Mr. Smith said at an organizational meeting in Mrs. Banks's house, where residents passed around snapshots of the latest rain damage.

"A meeting like this couldn't have happened in the old days of coal; they would have found a way to bust it up," he said. He is confident, he added, that Chopping Block Hollow has some fight left in it.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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