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The mountaintop removal site at Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. (Photo: Kate Wellington/flickr/cc)

Mountaintop Removal Never Ended: Coal River Mountaineers Fight On

Jeff Biggers

Standing in solidarity with the water protectors on the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Coal River Mountain residents already fending off seven square miles of devastating mountaintop removal mining permits are planning a protest on Monday at the Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston, West Virginia against pending permits for a possible expansion of operations by formerly bankrupt Alpha Natural Resources.

Yes, Virginia, in 2016 formerly bankrupt coal companies continue to blast away historic Coal River Mountain and adjacent communities.

Let’s call it morally bankrupt.

And while the presidential campaigns trade “war on coal” slogans, no candidate and few reporters have made a single mention of one of the most egregious environmental crimes and civil rights violations in our lifetimes: The enduring health crisis of residents living amid the fallout of mountaintop removal operations.

Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has never ended — despite decades of local campaigns and a historic petition last year of 200,000 signatures for a moratorium until the federal government could carry out a basic health assessment.

Sure, mining has declined, due to natural gas competition, but mountaintop removal mining has never ended—despite the documented health crisis and cancer link from millions of pounds of strip mining explosives, silica dust, and contamination of waterways from pulverized heavy metals.

And Coal River mountaineers living in the toxic ruins of the coal industry, with few resources, continue to fight harder and finish off the outlaw ranks of Big Coal, in the words of Goldman Prize recipient Judy Bonds, until they bring an end to this “war on Appalachia.”

“From the mountains of Appalachia to the plains of Lakota country to the western ports and pipelines, from Black Mesa to the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, extreme extraction industries jeopardize the health, water, air, and land of local communities,” said Vernon Haltom, with Coal River Mountain Watch. “It’s all one water, one atmosphere, and one Earth on which we all depend and for which we all must fight.”

“People need to stop saying mountaintop removal is over,” said Goldman Prize recipient Maria Gunnoe, who lives under a mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia. “It is not over! We are seeing new permits weekly. We have educated thousands of people on mountaintop removal. Most of them have left and moved on and are now fighting other issues with more funding I don’t understand why they didn’t complete the job and end mountaintop removal.”

Sure, there have been some glimmers of hope—after years of denial and hand-wringing as the coal industry openly carried out violation-ridden mines, the feds have agreed to conduct an independent assessment of existing research on the health impacts of mountaintop removal, but still allow mining to continue; the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection recently halted the devastating KD#2 mine near the Kanawha State Forest; and former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is serving a prison sentence for conspiring to violate mine safety measures.

But, here are four points to remember:

1) Mountaintop removal, like all strip mining, should have been abolished in 1971, as US Rep. Ken Hechler from West Virginia proposed to the Congress—not regulated, given the century-long rap sheet of an outlaw coal industry that has openly flaunted rules in a constant state of violation, exploited loopholes and a corrupt state and federal system that tolerates regulatory manslaughter.

2) Mountaintop removal is a human rights and civil rights issue, not just an environmental issue, which has resulted in forced removals, the desecration of churches and burial grounds, the poisoning of waterways and air, and the toxic contamination of pregnant mothers, child and the elderly.

“”We didn’t formally know in the 1990s what we know now,” said Bob Kincaid, with Coal River Mountain Watch, “that mountaintop removal steals innocent lives. Any acceptance of the practice now carries with it a tolerance, an acquiescence to homicide.”

3) Mountaintop removal has endured because our country still accepts the reality of “sacrifice zones,” where the health of certain regions and people is considered as disposable as our natural resources.

Appalachia, like 25 other states that mine or have mined coal, will be living with the toxic fallout of coal mines and coal slurry for generations.

4) Mountaintop removal is a climate change issue. The refusal to address mountaintop removal over the last half century—and during President Obama’s administration—despite the fact that it only provides 5% of our national coal production, reflects our denial to take the urgent action necessary to combat climate change. Recognizing the great carbon sink of the Appalachian mountains, the abolition of mountaintop removal would have offered such a chance to end a disastrous coal policy and make Appalachia the front-line showcase for our nation’s clean energy agenda, not the backwoods of denial.

“Mountaintop removal is not an accident,” said Bo Webb, a long-time activist in West Virginia, whose family lived under a mountaintop removal operations. “It is done with purpose knowing that water, air, and soil are all being poisoned and knowing that elevated rates of cancer, heart and lung disease, and birth defects in surrounding communities are directly attributed to this specific form of coal mining. It is time for President Obama to speak to the heartache of living near mountaintop removal. It is also time for the Sierra Club and other large organizations to fully support the ACHE Act and end mountaintop removal.”


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