End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington

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End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington culminated in a demonstration on June 6, where 22 Appalachian residents were arrested for holding sit-ins in Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) and Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D-West Virginia) offices.  Several women shaved their heads in mourning and protest of mountaintop removal mining.  “My hair will grow back but the mountains won’t,” said one protestor to the crowd.

Hundreds of Appalachian residents came to Washington, DC, this week for the 7th annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington.  They met with Representatives from their home states to demand that Congress take action to stop the horribly destructive practice that is mountaintop removal coal mining.

Why such attention to MTR mining?  Ilovemountains.org has an excellent description of the six gory processes involved in this method of coal mining that has impacted more than 700,000 acres of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee:

1. Clearing: Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not even used commercially in the rush to get the goal, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills.

2. Blasting: Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 500-800 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives.

3. Digging: Coal and debris is removed by using a huge piece of machinery called a dragline. A dragline stands 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars in its bucket. These machines can cost up to $100 million, but are favored by coal companies because they displace the need for hundreds of jobs.

4. Dumping waste: The waste from the mining operation, also known as overburden or spoil, is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. According to an EPA environmental impact statement, more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams were permitted to be buried as of 2001.

5. Processing: The coal is washed and treated before it is loaded on trains. The excess water left over from this process is called coal slurry or sludge and is stored in open coal impoundments. Coal sludge is a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium. Impoundments are held in place by mining debris, making them very unstable.

6. Reclamation: While reclamation efforts such as stabilization and revegetation are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, state agencies that regulate mining are generous with granting waivers to coal companies. Most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, but even the best reclamation provides no comfort to nearby families and communities whose drinking water supplies have been polluted and whose homes will by threatened by floods for the hundred or thousands of years it will require to re-grow a forest on the mined site.

The Week in Washington, organized by ilovemountains.org and Appalachia Rising is the latest episode in a long battle to end MTR mining.   In addition to its environmental destructiveness, a study released last year concluded that rates of birth defects are significantly higher in MTR mining areas compared to non-mining areas.

But despite Wednesday’s efforts to stir up some political momentum to end MTR mining, Congressional action has been entirely in favor of the coal companies.  EPA’s attempts to more rigorously regulate the creation of new mines have incited fury from coal companies and the GOP, who nicknamed the EPA’s efforts a “permitorium” last year.  Just this March, a federal judge reversed the EPA’s decision to revoke a critical permit for one of the nation’s largest MTR sites in Logan County, West Virginia.  Yet contrary to this alleged “permitorium,” more than 110 individual and general mining permits have been issued since the Obama Administration began.

The fight to end MTR mining has in the past attracted some big names – last year’s March on Blair Mountain featured Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  James Hansen spoke at a September 2010 rally outside the White House where 100 mountaintop removal protestors were arrested.  The June 6 rally was smaller and the number of arrests was lower than with some earlier anti-MTR actions. But it brought forth once again the intensity and commitment of Appalachian grassroots anti-MTR activists.

The rally, though it lacked high-profile public speakers, served as a grave reminder that MTR mining continues despite the lack of recent media coverage, and that Appalachian families continue to pay for this destructive practice with their health, their heritage, and their homes.  We hope grassroots efforts will lead more members of Congress to understand how MTR mining affects their constituents and why it should be abolished.

To find out more about MTR mining, we recommend two excellent documentaries entitled The Last Mountain and Deep Down, on community battles over proposed MTR projects.  Also see the book Plundering Appalachia, featuring some of the most disturbing pictures of MTR mining sites we’ve ever seen.

There is a plethora of resources available at Appalachian Voices, Appalachia Rising, ilovemountains.org, and Honest Appalachia.  You can also take action by signing NRDC’s petition that urges the Obama Administration to stop mining companies from dumping their waste directly into Appalachian waterways.

It’s also important to note that, in spite of the failure of Washington to take effective steps to end MTR, a remarkable set of battles is being waged all over the country to stop construction of new coal-fired power plants and shut down existing plants.  For an overview of this campaign, which has had considerable success so far, see the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal website.  More on that later.

[Photos: Katherine O'Konski]

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