U.S. representative Ben Chandler, of Kentucky, and Norm Dicks, of Washington, spoke with residents living deep in the central Appalachian coalfields after landing here in what they described as a "fact-finding trip" that surveyed sites in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
Dicks chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental matters, giving him power over the budget of the Office of Surface Mining. It is the first time a member of Congress in such a position has come to Kentucky to view large-scale surface mining and meet with opponents.
Dicks, who seemed surprised at the vastness of the mined land, said that mountaintop removal might need to be reigned in. He made the trip after repeated requests from Chandler, a fellow Democrat on the subcommittee.
"The amount of land that has been mined was quite substantial," Dicks said moments after getting off the plane Friday at the Wendell H. Ford Airport in Perry County. "In our state we have very large clear-cuts and these were of even greater magnitude than those. I do think the question of sustainability comes up and what the consequences or the impact of this is on the environment."
Dicks, who has served in congress for 32 years, said he will take the information from Friday's visit back to Washington.
On board with the two congressmen were the director of the Office of Surface Mining and a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that opposes mountaintop removal mining.
Reigning in mining?
Mountaintop removal uses explosives and heavy equipment to take off the tops of mountains to expose coal seams. However, opponents use the term to include other forms of surface mining such as area mining. That involves blasting away only part of the mountain but creates similar issues, including filling adjacent valleys and waterways with excess rock and dirt, which opponents argue damages the environment.
The coal industry defends large-scale surface mining as the most economical way, the only way, at times, to recover some coal.
Dicks said lawmakers may need to look at reigning in mountaintop mining, just as they did in the northwest with clear-cutting, a process where a large section of trees in a forest are cut down and the trees are sold for use.
"We had clear-cutting of these very large areas and we found it was doing a lot of environmental damage," Dicks said. "So we made the clear-cuts more discrete and we protected areas that were important to the environment."
Dicks said his subcommittee will look at whether the OSM is doing its job adequately, and whether it has the money and staff to carry out its duties.
Friday's visit was the second attempt by the congressmen to fly over mountaintop mining sites.
Earlier this month, they were forced to cancel their trip because the battery was dead on the plane they were to use.
Although Chandler said bringing Dicks to Appalachia was a top priority, he was reluctant to say Friday what his feelings are about restricting mountaintop mining. He said only that he was "concerned" about its effects on the environment.
"This is the first chance we've had to have a look at it," Chandler said. "The main purpose in my mind today was to introduce the chairman of our committee to this process and what was occurring. We are going to be involved as it goes forward and we are going to take into consideration all viewpoints."
After Friday's flyover, the congressmen took a bus tour led by International Coal Group Inc. of an active mining site in Montgomery Creek in Perry County. ICG is a leading producer of coal in Northern and Central Appalachia with both underground and surfice mines. ICG officials denied a request by the Herald-Leader to accompany the congressmen on the tour and declined to comment on it.
Damage to ecosystem
Several residents and members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth gathered at the Hazard airport to share their experiences and speak to the congressmen.
They fight the practice mostly because of the destruction they say it brings.
As miners blast away mountaintops and dump leftover debris in neighboring valleys - often burying natural streams - they pollute and destroy a diverse ecosystem that can never be replaced, they said Friday.
Those who live in communities where clunky coal trucks wind down roads at all hours and miners blast away at seams miles atop mountains, said they are tired of the thick, sticky dust that coats their gardens and their lungs. The blasting shakes and sometimes causes cracks in their homes and has been known to change the underground landscape, polluting water wells or causing them to go dry. Deep in the mountains, city water is not available to many.
"We think it speaks to how serious the problem has become that Congressman Chandler and Chairman Dicks have made the trip from Washington to see for themselves how pervasive the abuse by the mine industry has become on Kentucky's mountains, forests and streams and the people," said Doug Doerrfeld, chairman of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. "We hope this leads to an ongoing conversation and more fact finding."
Sara Pennington, a KFTC member from Knott County, says she hopes the visit leads to the passage of the Clean Water Protection Act in Washington and the passage of the Stream Saver bill during the next Kentucky General Assembly session.
Pennington, who flew with the congressmen over the mining sites, says she is hopeful Chandler and Dicks will use their influence to restrict mountaintop removal and protect the environment.
"Chandler brought Dicks here because he wanted him to see the magnitude of it," she said.
'Better than before'
Among the sites the congressmen viewed were the Thunder Ridge Mine in Hoskinston in Leslie County, as well as Linwood Pond, a huge black-water pond that holds sludge _the waste from washing coal.
They also flew over several commercial areas in Hazard - such as the hospital, airport, Wal-Mart, Lowes and the National Guard Armory, all of which have been built on former mining sites.
Industry officials pointed to those sites as examples of how mining creates flat land in an area where there is little of it available for development outside flood-prone areas.
In addition, industry officials and supporters say mining creates jobs in areas where there are not many others.
Bernie Faulkner, 60, of Hazard, said that mountaintop mining gets a bad name from the media and others who seem to focus only on active mining sites. Faulkner was among only a couple of Appalachian residents who support coal to come to the airport Friday to meet the congressmen. He brought with him photos of reclaimed mining sites and animals on those sites.
"We all agree that active mining can be ugly," Faulkner said. "It's like an open heart on the table during surgery, but what they put it back to is, in some cases, better and more beautiful than before."
Faulkner says former mining sites have led to great adventure tourism opportunities for Eastern Kentucky, noting the popular horseback riding and all-terrain vehicle trails in Knott County and elsewhere that were created on former mountaintop mining sites.
© 2008 Lexington Herald-Leader