Condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining: A good example of citizen-scientist action


An article in Science in which the authors conclude a review of the irredeemably damaging impacts of mountaintop removal mining with a call for policymakers to stop permitting this practice is a good example of prominent scientists using their expertise to play a much-needed role as citizens. There are many potential avenues for influential science citizenship, but the community needs to be creative and skillful about it.

Post by Rick Piltz

In his January 13 post at Science Progress (“When Scientists Speak Out: The Power of a Communications Plan”) Chris Mooney writes (excerpt here; read the full post):

It is one of the most dramatic human assaults on the natural landscape imaginable. In so-called “mountaintop removal mining,” or “MTR”, companies clear away forests near the tops of mountain peaks, and then use explosives and heavy machinery to literally remove the mountain’s cap and expose and harvest the coal beneath it. As opposed to underground coal mining, where the chief toll is to human health, you might think of MTR as coal mining at high altitude—where the chief toll is to the environment. What was once mountain, now blasted off, becomes “valley fill”: tumbling down into forests below, and frequently choking streams with dust and rock.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists detest MTR, and have been outraged to watch it gain momentum thanks to regulatory policy changes made by the Bush administration. In fact, greens aren’t very happy with the Obama administration’s environmental regulators on this topic, either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently granted a permit for another mountaintop mine in West Virginia, arguing that the environmental impacts of the project would be adequately mitigated.

But now, a group of prominent environmental scientists are lending their expertise to the case against MTR and, further, are questioning the very idea that mitigation of its damaging impacts is possible—or in other words, whether there is any such thing as a “mild” or “safe” mountaintop removal. In a recent “Policy Forum” article in the journal Science, a team of twelve environmental researchers survey MTR’s many nasty effects, which range from the destruction of ecosystems and the attendant reduction in biodiversity and species endangerment, to stream pollution, fish deformation, the befouling and dangerous pollution of human drinking systems, the increased risk of flooding, and so forth. Then, at the end of the paper, the scientists step beyond the mere “facts” of the case to denounce MTR in uncompromising terms, calling for policy changes to prevent its further use. What started out as pure science became, for these researchers, a clarion call to action:

Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/VF [“mountaintop removal mining with valley fills”] practices are inadequate. Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses. Considering environmental impacts of MTM/VF, in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians is compromised by mining activities, we conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems. Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science. The United States should take leadership on these issues, particularly since surface mining in many developing countries is expected to grow extensively.

The authors of the Science article on mountaintopp removal also took their case to the National Press Club. Mooney writes:

… [T]here can be little doubt that, in part because it is so outspoken and so direct, the Science paper has had a major media impact. Indeed, the paper has put the Obama EPA in the hot seat: On the one hand, the agency seemed to embrace the latest findings (for how could it argue with the best available science?); on the other, it had just let another MTR permit go through. It suddenly seemed caught in an embarrassing contradiction.

(Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”)

Jim Hansen has spoken out and joined protestors in opposition to mountaintop removal, and to allowing any more coal-fired power plants to be built. From our June 25, 2009, post (“Jim Hansen’s statements at Coal River Mountain protest against mountaintop removal”):

“We must have a moratorium on new coal plants and phase out existing ones within the next 20 years.” said NASA climate scientist James Hansen at a June 23 rally in West Virginia protesting mountaintop removal for coal mining. “Coal from mountaintop removal provides only 7% of United States coal, less than the amount of coal that we export.” At the time he was arrested, Dr. Hansen was reading a Declaration of the protestors that begins: “When, in the course of their lives, people find that they are being abused by those in position of power, and their children and their children’s future are being damaged by those in power, it is the right of the people, and their sacred duty, to resist.” …

“Local pollution effects and regional environmental destruction should be enough to stop the practice of mountaintop removal,” Dr. Hansen says in comments on his Columbia University web site accompanying the West Virginia statements.  “The bigger picture, including climate change, makes it clear that mountaintop removal, providing only 7 percent of United States coal, makes no strategic sense whatever….There has to be some leadership from the top. We cannot continue to give President Obama a pass on this much longer. On the other hand, he needs broad support in order to do what is right….”

Whether or not one chooses to be part of a protest demonstration, I believe the climate and environmental science community has an essential role to play in setting the record straight and influencing public discourse that goes beyond providing good science education, beyond contributing to the peer-reviewed literature, and beyond developing the IPCC and other scientific assessment reports – all of which are bedrock intellectual contributions, of course. It also includes intervening directly, in a citizen-scientist capacity – by which I mean, when you have a contribution to make, speaking as an advocate to policymakers and fellow citizens explicitly on the basis of bringing scientific expertise to the discussion—to address policy and societal implications of scientific understanding. It includes helping to keep the discussion honest by calling down high-level public officials and operatives of the global warming disinformation campaign when they misrepresent scientific evidence – to peform an integrity watchdog function. There are some outstanding exceptions, but I believe that, overall, the science community has underperformed in its citizen-scientist role, and the results are all too apparent.

I discussed this in an earlier post (“An eminent climate scientist working to hold government officials accountable”), excerpted here:

In a column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists online (“Reflections on the U.N. climate change negotiations in Bali”), Richard C. J. Somerville recalls U.S. atmospheric scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, who would later share the Nobel Prize in chemistry, saying to a journalist in frustration at the slow pace of government action to deal with stratospheric ozone depletion, “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true!” …

There is a divergence of views in the climate science community on this issue of the appropriate role of scientific expertise vis-a-vis the practice of citizenship—where citizenship involves taking a position on issues requiring policy decisionmaking, i.e., advising policymakers and the public on the scientist’s expertise-based view of the implications of current scientific understanding—and not speaking simply in the language of natural science.

Andy Revkin of the New York Times, in his DotEarth blog, touched on this divergence in a post focused on Somerville (“The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy”). Revkin wrote:

Richard C. J. Somerville, a climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego, is one of a growing array of scientists who have chosen to move beyond studying heat transfer and cloud physics and take on the role of activist: prodding society to move aggressively to cut greenhouse gases….

“For me, and maybe for many, I think that ‘going public’ and making a statement as an individual, who is also a climate expert, is simply a next logical step,” Dr. Somerville said.

“After all, many politicians have said that scientists should be heard from more. As long as we are always at pains to make clear that we are speaking only as individuals, not on behalf of our employers or other organizations, then I think we are just behaving as good citizens.”

But Revkin notes:

Other scientists disagree with this kind of activism, most notably Susan Solomon, who was the co-leader of the 2007 I.P.C.C. assessment of climate trends. In an email exchange on the general issue of scientists and policy debate last weekend (just before she flew to Antarctica), she said: “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the skeptics.”

…[I]t seems inadequate to speak in terms of a dichotomy between “what we know,” on the one hand, and “personal opinions” and “personal speculation,” on the other, as though there were no intellectual terrain between “knowing” something with, say, 95 percent confidence, and being reduced to something like speculative, amateurish punditry. It’s as though scientists, including those who write the IPCC assesssments, have nothing to offer to an actual dialogue with policymakers in terms of policymakers’ decisionmaking jurisdiction.

On the contrary, what policymakers need from the climate science community does not end with technical reports on the current state of scientific understanding. They also need scientists’ synthesis of and expert judgments about the state of knowledge in terms of its implications for policymaking and societal decisionmaking. Policymakers need scientists to advise them in the context of assessing and managing the risks of climate change, and on the implications of their decisions about adaptation and mitigation response strategies. …

The problem of global climatic disruption is far too serious to think that society is well-served by a separation between scientists and decisionmaking—with scientists speaking only the language of “what we know” and failing to speak of “here are what we see as the implications for your decisionmaking of what we know, and the implications for society of your actions.” …

Whenever I am asked the “What can I do?” question, I never give some stock answer like “write a letter to the editor” or “write a letter to Congress.” (Nothing against letters, letters are good.)  My response is, essentially, develop yourself as a citizen.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to make your contribution.  There are many potential ways to take action, depending on the circumstances.  Think creatively about what you bring to the table and how to put it to use.

That’s a subject for future posting.

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