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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