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Hope in the Mountains

Yesterday was a great day for the people of Appalachia and for all of
America. In a bold departure from Bush-era energy policy, the Obama
administration suspended
a coal company's permit to dump debris from its proposed mountaintop
mining operation into a West Virginia valley and stream. In addition,
the administration promised to carefully review upward of 200 such
permits awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With yesterday's action, President Obama has signaled his intention
to save this region. His moratorium on these permits will allow the
administration to develop a sensible long-term approach to dealing with
this catastrophic method of coal extraction.

I join hundreds of Appalachia's embattled communities in applauding
this news. Having flown over the coalfields of Appalachia and walked
her ridges, valleys and hollows, I know that this land cannot withstand
more abuse. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is the greatest
environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation.

This radical form of
strip mining has already flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried
2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country's oldest and most
diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their
history and beauty. Using giant earthmovers and millions of tons of
explosives, coal moguls have eviscerated communities, destroyed homes,
and uprooted and sickened families with coal and rock dust, and with
blasting, flooding and poisoned water, all while providing far fewer
jobs than does traditional underground mining.

The backlog of permit applications has been building since
Appalachian groups won a federal injunction against the worst forms of
mountaintop removal in March 2007. But the floodgates opened on Feb. 13
when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned that injunction.
Since then, the Corps has been working overtime to oblige impatient
coal barons by quickly issuing the pending permits. Each such permit
amounts to a death sentence for streams, mountains and communities.
Taken together, these pending permits threatened to lay waste to nearly
60,000 acres of mountain landscape, destroy 400 valleys and bury more
than 200 miles of streams.

The Corps already had issued a dozen permits before the White House
stepped in, and coal companies have begun destroying some of these
sites. The bulldozers are poised for action on the rest. Typical of
these is Ison Rock Ridge, a proposed 1,230-acre mine in southwest
Virginia that would blow up several peaks and threaten a half-dozen
communities, including the small town of Appalachia.

In a valiant effort to hold back destruction, the Appalachia Town
Council, citing its responsibility for the "health, safety, welfare,
and properties" of its residents, recently passed an ordinance
prohibiting coal mining within the town limits without approval from
the council. But that ordinance lacks the power to override the Army
Corps of Engineers' permit. And while the Obama administration order
will reverse the Bush-era policies and stop the pillaging elsewhere,
the town of Appalachia remains imperiled.

The White House should now enlarge its moratorium to commute
Appalachia's death sentence by suspending the dozen permits already
issued. The Environmental Protection Agency should then embark on a
rulemaking effort to restore a critical part of the Clean Water Act
that was weakened by industry henchmen recruited to powerful positions
in the Bush administration. Former industry lobbyists working as agency
heads and department deputies issued the so-called "fill rule" to
remove 30-year-old laws barring coal companies from dumping mining
waste into streams. This step cleared the way for mountaintop removal,
which within a few years could flatten an area of the Appalachians the
size of Delaware. This change must be reversed to restore the original
intent of the Clean Water Act and prevent mining companies from using
our streams and rivers as dumps.

The Obama administration's decision to suspend these permits and
take a fresh look at mountaintop removal is consistent with Obama's
commitment to science, justice and transparency in government and his
respect for America's history and values. The people of Appalachia,
Va., and the other towns across the coalfields have been praying that
Barack Obama's promise of change will be kept. Thanks to yesterday's
decision, hope, not mining waste, is filling the valleys and hollows of
Appalachia.


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