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Advocates Fight Mountaintop Removal

by Matthew Cardinale

ATLANTA, Georgia - Environmental groups across the southeast United States, from Georgia to the Appalachia region, are stepping up their opposition to a controversial but widespread practice by coal companies of removing the tops of mountains with explosives.

Atlanta-based activist Darci Rodenhi recently organised an ad hoc group called Mountain Justice GA, which lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Atlanta regional office to reject 79 new permits for mountaintop removal.

The EPA denied the permits earlier this month, saying the applications were in violation of the Clean Water Act. Advocates see the move as a victory because it was the first set of permits to come before the EPA since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.

Austin Hill of Appalachian Voices says the George W. Bush administration would routinely rubber-stamp the same types of applications.

"That's what's shocking. These are standard operating procedure for industry, to file these types of permits. We're just seeing an administration now willing to enforce the laws on the books," Hill told IPS.

However, the permit denials are not a done deal. The EPA and other agencies involved are currently working with the coal companies during a 60-day period in which the coal companies can submit a new set of applications. Advocates say they are staying vigilant because the EPA may yet approve the applications in the future.

Environmental groups also stress that many of the damaging effects of mountaintop removal have already occurred, some which cannot be undone and others which will take great time and effort to address. Moreover, many permits approved under the Bush administration are still in place.

Critics point to numerous problems with mountaintop removal: the destruction of mountains, pollution of water, destruction of ecosystems, health impacts on humans and animals, destruction of homes, displacement of local residents, and even the disruption of local economies.

"We're looking at 500 individual peaks across Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia [that have been removed]. The 500 peaks are the equivalent 1.2 million acres of land, the size of the state of Delaware," Hill told IPS.

"About two-thirds of all mountaintop removal operations across Appalachia have valley fills in conjunction with actually removing the peak. Valley fills are where you blow the top off the mountain, you access this thin seam of coal, and you dump the remaining waste in the valleys. In 99 percent of valleys will be some type of stream or creek," he said.

Hill said that mountaintop removal involving the valley fills "have buried or impaired about 2,000 miles of streams".

He added that only a small portion of the mountaintop is useful to coal companies. "Imagine a multilayer cake, you have cake and you have thin layers of icing: that's generally how coal is distributed in a mountain," Hill said.

He adds that there are less destructive ways to get coal out of a mountain, such as contour mining, but they are more costly and labour-intensive, and coal companies tend to be primarily concerned with making a profit.

"If you can imagine constant blasting where the landscape around you is completely being ravaged, it's razed. This blasting, it fractures foundations in homes, it disrupts the local water table, it sends boulders and fly rock crashing into homes, and it frays your nerves," said Hill, who grew up in a mining family.

"There's folks in West Virginia who dread when the clock goes to 4 p.m. They, in their homes, have to brace for an explosion - this is every day," Hill said.

Many families in Appalachia have already been displaced from their land, advocates say.

"Mountaintop removal is a tragedy. Even miners are against it because it's taking their jobs," Erin Glynn, national organiser for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, told IPS.

"It's unnecessary, that's the biggest tragedy of all. We're doing this and we don't need to be. It's a waste of resources and it's an antiquated system that's not necessary," Glynn said.

Glynn, who is based in Atlanta, Georgia, notes the state is the number one user of coal power in the U.S. – which also produces the most carbon emissions of any fossil fuel.

"You see the train sometimes coming in with piles of coal but you don't really think, how are they obtaining that? And what is it doing to the economy and the people and the land? Mountaintop removal has ruined lives, homes, towns, and not to mention rivers that starts in the Appalachian Mountains and flow into our watershed in Georgia," Glynn said.

Appalachian Voices's primary goal as an organisation at the moment is to see the passage of legislation in U.S. Congress which would ban the dumping of mining waste in the nation's waterways, including ponds, rivers, and streams.

A bill titled HR 1310, "to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste," was introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Frank Pallone and has 155 co-sponsors. It has been referred to a subcommittee but no action has yet been taken on the bill.

A companion piece of legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, Hill said.

"The bill would amend the Clean Water Act [of which the Federal Water Pollution Control Act is part] to restore it to its original 1972 intent," Hill said.

The legislation originally included provisions allowing fill material such as dirt or gravel to be placed in waterways when a city had a legitimate need, such as to build a bridge.

"Fill material didn't originally include any kinds of waste. You couldn't just dispose of waste [from coal mining in waterways]. When you look at valley fills, this is a pretty flagrant abuse of the Clean Water Act. In 2000, in response to... class action lawsuits that valley fills were illegal, the last [George W. Bush] administration, responding to pressure from industry, changed the definition of fill material to include mining waste," Hill said.

"This [was] a rule change, not an act of Congress; it's an executive action," Hill said.

HR 1310 would thus clarify the original act so that the executive branch will no longer have the discretion to make such a rule change in the future.

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