Friday, 14 September 2007

Mountaintop Pillage

The naked land reveals the naked truth. The greed of millionaires trumps the health of the poor, the purity of the water, and even the beauty of the hills. In an under-reported story, the Bush administration has made yet another rule change assaulting the environment and enriching the polluters. The practice of mountaintop removal will no longer be hampered by those pesky environmental rules designed to protect our waters.

Photo courtesy Vivian Stockman /
Flyover courtesy

Couched in language which might initially incline a reader to think it is protecting the environment, the new proposed rules actually redefine terms, and reinterpret former acts of Congress, in such a way that mining operations which engage in the surface coal mining technology known as mountaintop removal are exempt from the 1983 requirement that prohibits mining activity within 100 feet of streams. In fact this practice routinely buries streams and valleys by tons of rubble, known as "excess spoil", which is stripped off the top of coal seams running through the tops of hills and mountains in West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Virginia.

The current rule change is subject to a 60-day comment period which will expire on October 23, though those looking for a response to their comment had best post it to before September 24. Folks at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have created this page of suggestions for citizen action.

So if the rule change is new, then how is it that about 1200 miles of streams have been tainted by this process (700 miles simply buried) since 1992? According to Vernon Haltom of Coal River Mountain Watch,
What happens is the permitting agencies grant variances, and they grant variances just pretty much willy-nilly. All the coal operator has to do is request a variance, and they’re granted pretty easily. Unfortunately, you know, this rule change would remove even that requirement.

The latest rule change is simply the latest in a series of changes which further undercuts environmental safeguards of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). The lengthy new document, which is actually surprisingly readable, arguably does remove logical ambiguities from the original act, but ever in the direction of allowing practices which are suggested as possible where another part of the Act would logically prohibit them.

Viewing photographs of this obvious desecration, one might wonder why it isn't front page news, frequently reported by the mainstream press. Alternatively one wonders, "Well what's the other side of the story?" In fact Google searches of CNN, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, and Fox News consistently turn up surprising few hits on "mountaintop removal", in spite of the fact that is the acknowledged name of the practice. Neither can one find any bevy of editorials supporting this indefensible practice, though occasional editorial support of coal liquifecation technologies implicitly approve the practice, as mountaintop removal (MTR) provides much of today's raw materials for that process.

Furthermore I scoured the online versions of the local press from such places as Beckley, WV and Pikeville, KY. Very little in the way of articles on the process appear, though there were numerous letters to the editor almost unanimously in staunch opposition to the process. The Charleston Gazette did a better job of covering it, with an earlier series, and a recent editorial by Allen Johnson declaring the destruction of the mountains to be a moral issue. Johnson, of Christians for the Mountains, was featured on a recent episode of Bill Moyers' Journal which investigated the issue.

Well then, is it the jobs MTR is providing which is producing such silence on this destructive practice? In fact, it has the opposite effect on employment as the process uses bigger machines and fewer people than traditional mining practices. Vernon Haltom again:
You know, we hear about coal being cheap. Well, coal is not cheap when you consider all the externalized costs that are borne by these communities. It’s really -- it is unbearable. And so what you have, you have depopulation, you have decreased jobs. Mountaintop removal requires fewer miners, and therefore fewer jobs.
Really it boils down to wealth and influence. Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, has no lack of ties and connections to government and the regulators, while Ed Wiley, citizen of West Virginia, walked all the way from Charleston, West Virginia to Washington, DC, and still could get no hearing. Carmelita Brown can look up the hill at Blankenship's home, and yet her water frequently ran dark brown with contaminants from ground water ruined by Massey's irresponsible mining practices. Only after thirteen years of documenting the contamination and battling the authorities, did Brown and 300 other families get clean municipal water piped into their homes. Of course that doesn't fix the ground water contamination which continues apace, and will only accelerate when this rule takes effect. It doesn't fix the air pollution caused by the blasting which exposes the seams of coal, to the tune of 474,000 metric tons of explosives used in West Virginia alone in 2005.

The Administration's own report (page 3) acknowledges that there were 1079 excess spoil fills approved in Kentucky, 375 in West Virginia, and 125 in Virginia between October 2001 and June of 2005. These are those exemptions already granted for filling in creeks, which will no longer be necessary when the new rule goes into effect. The new language may remove ambiguity about what is and is not allowed (pretty much the polluters can do as they please), but the constraints, now often amount to vague suggestions that excess spoil and adverse environmental impacts be minimized, rather than enforcing specific standards. There remains the constraint that the spoil not be dumped into valleys lower in altitude than the lowest part of the seam to be mined, but that's easily skirted by making sure some mining occurs in a seam lower than the intended dumping area.

The champions of the free market love to claim that market forces can work to protect our environment, but when the distribution of wealth is so extremely skewed it just doesn't work that way. Billionaires buy the regulations they want, and the impoverished are left with no leverage. This isn't supply and demand; it's corruption pure and simple. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are on the take, but there is little question that the Bush Administration is front and center when it come to cementing the advantage for the wealthy elite.


Noemie said...

Oh my goodness, this is what has to change, this obscene inequality of power that leads to this kind of desecration. In such a world, it's as if there is no law -- except when used against those who have no power.

Natasha's poem, Summer of Law comes to mind. So does the old English folk poem:

They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steal the goose from off the common
But leave the greater villain loose,
That steals the commons from the goose.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steal the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
'Till they go and steal it back

Anonymous said...

The oil's running out, so there'll be more of this - extracting anything useful from anywhere, regardless of the consequences, environmental or otherwise.
The same thing is happening in the my country (UK) -