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.
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
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
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.
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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."