Coalfield Activists Turn Tables at Mountaintop Removal Hearings

In gut-wrenching testimonies on the devastating economic costs and mounting humanitarian crisis related to reckless mountaintop removal operations, two courageous Appalachian coalfield leaders turned the tables on an EPA-bashing Republican-led Natural Resources House Committee hearing in Charleston, West Virginia today.

"The coal industry obviously wants to bury and pollute all of our water and all of who we are, for temporary jobs," 2009 North American Goldman Prize winner Maria Gunnoe testified. "Jobs in surface mining are dependent on blowing up the next mountain and burying the next stream. When are we going to say enough is enough?

In holding the hearing in the Appalachian coalfields, Republican members -- and their Big Coal bankrolled Democrat allies -- had initially brought their thinly veiled political circus of coal industry wags under the banner of ""Jobs at Risk: Community Impacts of the Obama Administration's Effort to Rewrite the Stream Buffer Zone Rule." In a parting gift to the coal industry, George W. Bush altered the ineffective but longstanding rule that was supposed to prevent companies from dumping toxic coal waste within 100 feet of a stream. Under the Obama administration, the Interior Department has spent more than two years to study a reversal of the manipulation by the Bush administration.

Unlike every single coal industry spokesperson that testified, Gunnoe and legendary coalfield activist Bo Webb live under the fallout of mountaintop removal operations, which have led to the largest forced removal of American citizens since the mid-19th century and left the region in entrenched poverty and unemployment. Webb, who has been actively petitioned by West Virginia residents to wage an independent 2012 Senate campaign against disgraced West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, quickly framed the hearings in a devastating reminder of the overlooked human and health care crises:

"The very title of this hearing indicates a bias from this committee against those that are living (and dying) in mountaintop removal mining communities. The title suggests that jobs are at risk if the SBZ rule is corrected. The SBZ rule must be corrected in order to protect The People's health. It was rewritten by George W. Bush at the cost of people's health and it needs fixed."

"With their powerful and courageous testimonies, Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb put the whole issue of water protections and surface mining in Appalachia into perspective today," said Elizabeth Judge, with the Earthjustice organization in Washington, DC. "They spoke profound truth to political power today, revealing the tragic injustices faced by people who live near mountaintop removal coal mining. Their honest words today made it clear to these House politicians that there is simply no way to justify the harms that mountaintop removal mining inflicts on families, communities and people throughout Appalachia. Bo's and Maria's striking testimonies today made it indisputable: Any attempt to block clean water protections in Appalachia is unconscionable. Lives are depending on stronger stream protections. Our nation's leaders must not let the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining go on."

Forty years ago, the venerable West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler foretold the economic ruin of strip-mining and mountaintop removal, which had already "left a trail of utter despair for many honest and hard-working people," in a similar congressional hearing:

"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 muck, 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 for workers in underground mines."

At the age of 97, Hechler is still trying to get the President and Congress to recognize the 40-year rap sheet of mountaintop removal operations. In truth, thanks to the heavily mechanization of strip-mining and shift to Powder River Basin operations in the West, Appalachian coalfield states like West Virginia and Kentucky have lost more than 65 percent of their jobs since Hechler took over nearly a half century ago.

In a riveting overview of mountaintop removal, and its role in depopulating historic communities, Gunnoe delivered an extraordinary testimony to the panel:

I am a native West Virginian. I and my family before me have lived the history that the coal industry has left in its path. We settled this area before coal was discovered. I am a Daughter of the American Revolution. Throughout all the "boom and bust", manmade catastrophes, and massive deaths and sicknesses some members of my family tell their generational part of coal's history in Southern Appalachia. This history is one of the many lessons of life we learned at a young age growing up in these communities. We learned from our hard schooled fathers and grandfathers that coal is mean and one thing you simply could not do was to trust this industry. No matter what the subject the conversation always come down to the coal company's bottom line. All my life every political move has always been directed at propping up the coal industry in WV. The fear that we as Appalachians have experienced throughout time of being without jobs is nothing compared to the fear of living without healthy, clean water in our streams and homes. We as families for many generation shave survived some of the most historically horrible poverty in this country by sustaining our lives from these mountains and streams. The biodiversity in S WV is what created the culture of the real mountaineers that we grew up being. Now rule changes such as Stream Buffer Zone threaten to permanently annihilate all that supports the real mountaineer's culture. The coal industry obviously wants to bury and pollute all of our water and all of who we are for temporary jobs. Jobs in surface mining are dependent on blowing up the next mountain and burying the next stream. When are we going to say enough is enough?

The Buffer Zone Rule from the Regan era was historically was intended as a good thing for
people who lived in the valleys where these intermittent and perennial streams flow. Over the
years it has been crooked politics and coal money influence that has gutted the intent of this
law. In my lifetime I do not know of this law ever being fully enforced. The coal industry and
the politicians have for most of my life manipulated and twisted the law in order to legally break this law by destroying our valuable headwater streams.. Surface mining has demolished our quality of life and life expectancy in our native homes. Our communities are now war zones with constant blasting, pollution and all area surface mining has stolen our ability to recreate in the mountains and do what we culturally always have. We are being shut out of areas that we have always enjoyed. Even our historic cemeteries are left in accessible to the public.

In his testimony, Webb pointed out the ignored studies on birth defects and cancer connected to contaminants related to mountaintop removal operations, and the intended purpose of the Reagan administration's Stream Buffer Zone Rule to protect waterways:

Let us not forget, President Ronald Reagan, your president, my president, in 1983 created the Stream Buffer Zone Rule because he realized the responsibility he had to protect America's water supply in the face of an industry that was moving more rapidly toward a method of mining that would turn entire mountains into ruin and destroy head water source streams that carry drinking water to millions of Americans. This committee now shares that responsibility because just before leaving his office President George W Bush with the stroke of a pen trashed the Reagan SBZ rule as a present to a coal industry that wills itself to increase profit at all cost, even at the cost of human health.

To date there are 19 peer reviewed science papers addressing human health in mountaintop removal communities. Here are a few of the titles: None have been scientifically refuted!!! Science does not allow a choice of preference, what to believe, what not to believe. You either believe in science or choose to put your head in the sand and revert to the dark ages. With some of the rhetoric coming from the coal industry today, one must wonder about their acceptance of modern science and living in the 21st century. One of the coal industry's more recent comments on the alarming birth defects research in mountaintop removal communities is that the research did not take into account those of us living in mountaintop removal communities are a bunch of inbreeds. Perhaps they need to look inside their own gene pool. It is a scientific fact that inbreeding can account for ignorance and low IQ's.

Mountaintop removal is an unprecedented form of coal extraction. Nearly a million acres of forested mountains have been obliterated. 2000 miles or more of headwater sources streams have been contaminated and countless water wells have been rendered unsafe for human consumption. Mountaintop removal has been in full stride now for only 15-20 years and already we are witnessing the short term effects of human exposure to this mad method of mining. What will be the long term effects?

Statistical research on Appalachian birth defects has found that a woman pregnant has a 42% greater chance of a baby born with birth defects than a pregnant woman living in a non mountaintop removal community. Equate that to cigarette smoking: a baby born in a mountaintop removal community has a 181% greater chance of a heart or lung birth defect, while the risk related to mother's smoking was only 17% higher. That, "honorable" committee members is staggering. If that does not get your attention, then you have sold your very heart and soul. Your pro life claim is no longer credible; it's false, and transparent. You stand on your bloody pulpit claiming to be pro life, yet allow our babies to be poisoned, disregarded like yesterdays garbage! A dog has more rights and protection than an unborn baby in a mountaintop removal community!

I ask each of you in the name of our great Nation to put politics aside, stand up for what is right, protect our citizens and do not oppose any change to the current SBZ rule that will help protect American lives. At the very least, support it being rolled back to the Reagan rule with total enforcement.

Let us be reminded, regulatory agencies are created to protect The People from industries that may cause harm to The People. When these agencies, or legislators for that matter, become indentured servants to those they oversee, or their power to regulate is circumvented by acts such as the Bush trashing of the SBZ rule, The People are not well served, America is not well served. Please remember this each and every waking moment of your service to our country.
Our future, our children's future, and our lives depend on it.

In the end, Gunnoe asked the House Committee members to put their illusive job rhetoric into perspective and grasped the magnitude of the human rights crisis in the coalfields: "How could anyone say that these temporary jobs is worth the permanent displacement of our people and the destruction of their waters, mountains and culture?"

She concluded: ""My nephew reminds me of what surface mining looks like from a child's eyes. As we were driving through our community he looks up and says, 'Aunt Sissy, what is wrong with these people? Don't they know we live down here?' I had to be honest with him and say, 'Yes, they know. They just simply don't care."

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