'Regulating' Mountaintop Removal or Sanctioning Human Rights Abuses?

Abetting Historicide: Does Nancy Sutley's Regulatory Banter Cover Up Crimes Against Coalfield Residents?

Mired in the acrobatics of
regulatory doublespeak, the Obama administration's increasing oversight
of the unbearable daily toll on Appalachian coalfield residents from
mountaintop removal begs the question: Are Obama's well-meaning but
irresolute environmental administrators abetting the crimes of human
rights violations and historicide?

Whether they are unaware of decades of regulatory circumvention by
Big Coal or not, one extraordinary fact about the Obama administration
is certain: While American citizens continue to lose their homes,
health, jobs and heritage to regulatory manipulations by mountaintop
removal operators in Appalachia, not one top level Obama administrator
has bothered to visit and see the urgent human rights and health care
crisis in the coalfields.

In effect, the mountaineers have been removed from the mountaintop removal debate.

Take Nancy Sutley, whose Council on Environmental Quality recently
announced "unprecedented" actions to "regulate" mountaintop removal and
"minimize adverse environmental consequences." For all of her good
intentions, Sutley has never publicly mentioned or recognized the
decades of human suffering, daily rounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil
blasts, toxic dust, contaminated water, harassment and violence,
desecration of cemeteries and national heritage sites, and the de facto
forced relocation of American citizens from mountaintop removal
operations in Appalachia.

Is it perhaps because she has never been to a mountaintop removal site?

Or that she has never sat in the home of coal miners like Steve and
Lora Webb in Boone County, West Virginia, as a 2,000-pound ANFO blast
exploded nearby?

Overwhelmed by the blasting of a nearby Massey Energy mountaintop
removal operation, the Webbs now have 60 days to leave their beautiful
home and century-old roots--their multi-generational heritage and
mountain homestead, and extraordinary cultivation of rare medicinal

In a Coal Valley News interview last fall, the Webbs recounted their
six-year nightmare of environmental regulatory loopholes and
governmental inaction living near a mountaintop removal operation:

"It was like an earthquake," the couple says, describing the deep
tremors caused by blasting on the mountain adjacent to their
home..."When they set off their explosives, you get a whole storm of
dust that covers everything - the cars, the houses, the trees. It looks
like ash or a fallout," Steve Webb said, sharing that he has also
witnessed rocks hitting trees and the asphalt road. "If a child
happened to be out in the road playing when they set the blast off,
they would have been injured," Webb said, recalling one particularly
strong blast that occurred several months ago.

Legally sanctioned through federal and state environmental
regulations, the great American pastoral for the Webb family will be
erased from existence in two months.

The complete Coal River News interview is here.

The Webbs are one example of many, many centuries-old families that
have been legally hounded out of the mountains by Big Coal
manipulations of environmental regulations.

And yet, EPA's Acting Assistant Administrator Michael H. Shapiro, in
announcing the EPA's sign-off on 42 of 48 mining permits, wrote last
spring: "I understand the importance of coal mining in Appalachia for
jobs, the economy and meeting the nation's energy needs."

Environmental protection somehow didn't include the human needs of the coalfield residents.

More so, Shapiro demonstrated an incredible lack of understanding
about Appalachian coalfield history, or the reality that mountaintop
removal coal accounts for less than 5-7 percent of our national coal
production, and that unemployment and poverty rates have skyrocketed in
the most heavily strip-mined areas of eastern Kentucky and West
Virginia due to mechanization and mountaintop removal operations.

As former West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler noted in 1971, in
his battle against the 1977 Surface Mining Act that granted federal
sanctioning to mountaintop removal, the devastation of strip mining on
his region's broader economy was inevitable:

"What about the jobs that will be lost if the strippers continue to
ruin the tourist industry, wash away priceless topsoil, fill people's
yards with the black much which runs off from a strip mine, rip open
the bellies of the hills and spill their guts in spoil-banks? This
brutal and hideous contempt for valuable land is a far more serious
threat to the economy than a few thousand jobs which are easily
transferable into the construction industry, or to fill the sharp
demand or workers in underground mines."

In truth, strip mining more than strips the land; it strips the
traces of any human contact. It results in a form of historical ethnic
cleansing. Consider the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, an area today
of wooded hills and riparian bottomlands off the Middle Fork of the
Vermillion River in eastern Illinois, and the historic place of the
birth of commercial strip mining of coal in the United States in the

While the recreation site is now lauded by environmental regulators
for its reforestation (albeit slight in diversity compared to the
virgin forests) and fun recreational sites as the first state park
developed from denuded strip-mined pits, it remains a haunting reminder
of the removal of the Kickapoo and their ancient settlements, and the
historic role of Kennekuk, the Kickapoo diplomat who lived in the area.

The Kickapoo villages were churned into ashes and spoil piles,
stagnant mine ponds and pits; the first mechanized strip mining
machines rattled their blades across the land cleared of virgin
forests, creeks and 1,000-year-old Native settlements until 1939.

Unlike the dogwoods and the duck ponds, the Kickapoo will never
return. Even worse, their history has been relegated to the heap pile
of a vanished past.

The impact of mountaintop removal on historic and contemporary
Appalachian settlements and coalfield communities is no less tragic. It
has not only destroyed the natural heritage. It has deracinated the
Appalachian culture, depopulated the historic mountain communities, and
effectively erased important chapters of Appalachian history from the
American experience.

With over 500 mountains destroyed, the central Appalachian
coalfields and hollows are systematically being turned into boarded-up
ghost towns and overgrown broken cemeteries.

Even the cemeteries are being wiped off the maps. Last weekend in
Boone County, West Virginia, Danny Cook and several of his family
members discovered access to their family cemeteries on Cook Mountain
apparently had been intentionally blocked. Horizon Resources LLC is
operating a surface mining operation on the mountain.

According to state law, coal companies mining near cemeteries must
allow family members access to those cemeteries. A detailed account of
the scene on Cook Mountain, with photos, is online here.

Cook was attempting to visit the grave of his ancestor, Civil War
veteran William Chap, who served in the forces to end slavery,
including the estimated 3,000 slaves that worked in the coal mines and
salt wells in the Kanawha River Valley alone.

The destruction of cemeteries and heritage sites, and historic
communities--including the recent decision to take off the
strip-mine-threatened Blair Mountain in West Virginia from the National
Registry due to regulatory procedures--is part of a process of what
some academic observers call "historicide," the eradication of people
from history, or at least killing their presence in history.

As one of the last holdouts on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, an
area that has been decimated, Larry Gibson's tenacity to defend his
mountain heritage and cemeteries in face of regulatory machinations has
become legendary, though not without a price. The story of his hollow's
depopulation and destruction, and razed cemeteries, is here.

Historicide sounds over the top to some. But this severe
interpretation of history is not easy to disregard when all that
remains of your heritage and your family's 200 years of important
American history is a shattered cemetery surrounded by out-of-state
coal company fences and do-not-enter signs.

In an exclusive interview with Grist last month, Sutley's fuzzy
understanding of the human costs of mountaintop removal was painfully
clear, as she adhered to Big Coal's marketing phrase of "mountaintop
mining" instead of "mountaintop removal" that has been used by
residents and writers for three decades. Sutley declared:

"I think everybody acknowledges it, the President has said it,
everybody we talk to acknowledges that there are serious impacts
associated with mountaintop mining and we have to address that. Going
forward we have to look at what we can do under existing authority to
strengthen the oversight of these projects and to see that we are using
those authorities fully to try to address the environmental impacts of
mountaintop removal mining. So, does it mean fewer projects, I don't
know the answer to that. But it will mean that we will deal with the
environmental impacts of those projects."

Sutley's line is worth repeating: So, does it mean fewer projects, I don't know the answer to that.

Here is the clip of Sutley:

On the heels of Sutley's indecision, Clay's Branch, West Virginia,
coalfield resident Bo Webb (no relation to the other Webbs) received
notice that the violations noted by federal regulators would be
circumvented by a WV state decision. Webb was told on Friday: While
operators were ordered to stop blasting in Clay's Branch until they
placed all the material, rocks, flyrock, boulders, downed trees and all
back on their permitted area, the WV Department of Environmental
Protection reviewed solution is to blast down to the next seam of coal,
blasting closer to residents so they can get to all the material that
is off the permitted area.

In a letter published in the Huffington Post, Webb lamented:

"My family and I live in southern West Virginia, beneath a
mountaintop removal site. I am forced to breathe silica dust everyday
because of the blasting that is taking place right above me. Fly rock
has landed in my garden. A boulder the size of a car hood came off
there and stopped just short of my garden. The sediment catch ditches
are full, again. The middle of the hollow is sliding in. The beautiful
creek where I used to catch fish bait and along its sides dig ramps,
mushrooms, and ginseng, is buried with rock, dirt and knocked down
trees. The spring that we used to love to get water from is buried. The
well water is sunken and muddy.

My house and my nerves rattle each day around 4 o'clock when the
out-of-state Massey Energy company sets off yet another series of
blast. And every evening I am reminded that my family has been on this
mountain since around 1830 -- long before Massey Energy invaded from
Richmond, Virginia; it's as simple as that."

For those who know history, Sutley's rhetoric is part of another
regulatory story--decades of regulatory circumvention. This is the
truth: Until mountaintop removal is abolished, environmental
regulations will fail to protect the health and welfare of coalfield

Returning to his own Appalachian woods in the 1970s, environmental writer Edward Abbey concluded:

"Something like a shadow has fallen between the present and past, an
abyss as wide as war that cannot be bridged by any tangible connection,
so that memory is undermined and the image of our beginnings betrayed,
dissolved, rendered not mythical but illusory. We have connived in the
murder of our own origins."

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