A President Breaks Hearts in Appalachia

Mountaintop removal coal mining is the worst environmental tragedy in
American history. When will the Obama administration finally stop this
Appalachian apocalypse?

If ever an issue deserved President Obama's promise of change, this
is it. Mining syndicates are detonating 2,500 tons of explosives each
day -- the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb weekly -- to blow up
Appalachia's mountains and extract sub-surface coal seams. They have
demolished 500 mountains -- encompassing about a million acres --
buried hundreds of valley streams under tons of rubble, poisoned and
uprooted countless communities, and caused widespread contamination to
the region's air and water. On this continent, only Appalachia's rich
woodlands survived the Pleistocene ice ages that turned the rest of
North America into a treeless tundra. King Coal is now accomplishing
what the glaciers could not -- obliterating the hemisphere's oldest,
most biologically dense and diverse forests. Highly mechanized
processes allow giant machines to flatten in months mountains older
than the Himalayas -- while employing fewer workers for far less time
than other types of mining. The coal industry's promise to restore the
desolate wastelands is a cruel joke, and the industry's fallback
position, that the flattened landscapes will provide space for economic
development, is the weak punchline. America adores its Adirondacks and
reveres the Rockies, while the Appalachian Mountains -- with their
impoverished and alienated population -- are dismantled by coal moguls
who dominate state politics and have little to prevent them from
blasting the physical landscape to smithereens.

Obama promised science-based policies that would save what remains
of Appalachia, but last month senior administration officials finally weighed in
with a mixture of strong words and weak action that broke hearts across
the region. The modest measures federal bureaucrats promised amount to
little more than a tepid pledge of better enforcement of existing laws.

And government claims of doing everything possible to halt the
holocaust are simply not true. George Bush gutted Clean Water Act
protections. Obama must restore them.

First, the White House should fix the "fill" rule the Bush
administration adopted in 2002 to allow coal companies to use streams
as waste dumps. Under this perverse interpretation of the Clean Water
Act, 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been interred under mining
waste. Obama could reverse the "fill" rule to reflect its original
meaning, which forbids waste matter from being dumped into waterways.

Second, the Interior Department should strictly enforce the widely
ignored "buffer zone" rule that forbids dumping waste within 100 feet
of intermittent or perennial streams.

Third, our laws require companies to restore mined areas to their
original condition. The administration should end the absurd fiction
that extraction pits filled with unconsolidated rocks and rubble where
trees will never grow and streams will never flow are "reclaimed."

Fourth, current law forbids the issuance of "fill" permits that will
cause "significant degradation" to waterways. It is absurd for the Army
Corps of Engineers to endorse the canard that filling miles of streams
is not causing significant degradation. The president should require
the Corps to deny and rescind permits where operations will cause
downstream damage.

Fifth, the Clean Water Act requires mining operators to prove that
they can restore the "function and structure" of affected streams.
Operators have never been compelled to make the functional or
structural analyses of the aquatic ecosystem required by the act. Obama
should order his officials to stop ignoring this requirement.

Sixth, the administration should enforce the law requiring an
environmental impact study for each permit when a mine "may have
significant environmental impacts," individually or cumulatively. The
Corps of Engineers routinely allows coal operators to escape this
mandate -- an illegal practice that should stop.

Instead of acting to enforce these laws, administration officials
indicated last month that they will allow more than 100 permits to go
forward while they carefully review their regulatory options. If they
act accordingly, the ruined landscapes of Appalachia will be Obama's

President Obama should go to Appalachia and see mountaintop removal.
My father visited Appalachia in 1966 and was so horrified by strip
mining -- then in its infancy -- that he made it a key priority of his
political agenda. He complained that Appalachia, with our nation's
richest natural resources, was home to America's poorest populations,
its worst education system, and its highest illiteracy and unemployment
rates. These statistics are even grimmer today as mining saps state
wealth. In 1966, 46,000 West Virginia miners were collecting salaries
and pensions and reinvesting in their communities. Mechanization has
shrunk that number to fewer than 11,000. They extract more coal
annually, but virtually all the profits leave the state for Wall

The coal industry provides only 2 percent of the jobs in Central
Appalachia. Wal-Mart employs more people than the coal companies in
West Virginia. Last week a major study documented how coal imposes a
net cost to Kentucky of more than $100 million per year. Coal is not an
economic engine in the coalfields. It is an extraction engine.

Obama has the authority to end mountaintop removal, without further
action from Congress and without formal rulemaking. He just needs to
make the coal barons obey the law.

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