The End of Mountaintop Removal Mining? Itâ€™s Complicated.
“The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them.”
~Lisa Jackson, administrator, EPA
The nation’s attention has been riveted on the Massey Upper Branch Mine tragedy this week. The mine explosion is a sobering reminder of the dangers of deep coal mining, and of the unconscionable dangers to which miners are exposed when profits trump safety. The tragedy comes on the heels of what may be a historic government decision to curtail a practice that has sickened, impoverished and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of inhabitants of rural Appalachia. That practice is mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintop removal mining is a form of surface mining that lops off the tops of the nation’s oldest mountain range and dumps the fill in streambeds and valleys that surround the former peaks.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a guidance statement on April 1 that could be a game changer. It mandates that fill can no longer be dumped in streambeds. The reason is that such “valley fills” pollute the watersheds with salts and other toxic minerals through the process of conductivity: the leaching effect of rainwater passing through the rubble.
The announcement was hailed in some mass media headlines as the end of mountaintop removal. The Guardian online trumpeted, “New regulations will put an end to mountaintop mining.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune hailed, “EPA ruling will effectively end ‘mountaintop’ mining.” Experts relate that it’s a little more complicated than that.
The EPA came at the problem from a bit of an oblique angle—water quality—given the overwhelming natural destruction caused by mountaintop removal, writing in the agency’s statement:
“We believe that circumstances unique to surface coal mining, however, are principally responsible for the increase in conductivity levels observed in surface waters downstream of mining practices. Surface coal mining involves disturbing large volumes of rock and dirt, land clearing, and spoil disposal activities at a scale not typically associated with activities such as development practices or forestry.”
“Let me be clear,” EPA head Lisa Jackson said in an advisory call with reporters. “This is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.” Jackson was clear, and resolute, on the call. She is making waves and does not mince words. "You're talking about no, or very few, valley fills that are going to meet this standard," Jackson said. In the long term, she will probably pay for her plain-spoken determination. Regulators nearly always do. But this guidance has all the makings, if you will pardon the pun, of a watershed moment in coal country.
Reaction among longtime advocates against mountaintop removal has been cautious—and nuanced—as several of my interviews conducted with some prominent West Virginians revealed. Leaders of the effort to end mountaintop removal don’t allow themselves the sweeping generalizations of the mainstream media when it comes to last week’s EPA decision to prohibit the most egregious valley fill practices.
“Any time we get something like this that weighs heavily in our favor we seem to get headlines that say, ‘Mountaintop removal—over!’” said Vivian Stockman, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. She pointed out that the ruling is going to affect only new permits. To Stockman, calling this ruling the end of mountaintop removal is premature.
Cindy Rank, Chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Mining Committee, said, “I think the fairest hope is that it will limit the size and the scale of the mining operations. I don’t think it will end strip mining or mountaintop removal per se.”
Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, himself a primary subject of Michael Shnayerson’s nonfiction bestseller Coal River, said, “I think it was a good decision that could be one step on the way to the end of mountaintop removal. I think it could spell the end of mountaintop removal in time. It was gratifying to see the EPA looking at the science.”
In the view of Lovett, Rank, and Stockman, this is more the beginning of the end; that’s a big difference. And that’s an advisory to the movement's allies not to let their guard down.
That said, Stockman and Rank joined Lovett in celebrating EPA’s adherence to good science—and, in their words, environmental justice. Said Stockman, “We’re really glad to see the environmental justice aspects of what EPA is talking about in this guidance document because that is basically what we have been saying since we got involved in this fight over a decade ago—that this has been having a huge effect on humans and really affecting our cultural use of the mountains. We are real heartened to see that in there.”
Indeed, Lisa Jackson seemed to be expressing just that point of view in the press release announcing the guidance, stating, “The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them.”
"The intent here is to tell people what the science is telling us, which is that it would be untrue to say that you could have numbers of valley fills, anything other than minimal valley fills, and not expect to see irreversible damage to stream health," Jackson said in the call to the reporter pool.
Vivian Stockman’s reaction: “It is really heartening to see the science is finally being taken seriously. The conductivity issue is immense. The science has been ignored over politics for quite some time.” Cindy Rank echoed Stockman’s thoughts, “The fact that EPA has been able to pick up on the environmental justice issue is wonderful—that and the conductivity issue.”
The Coal Industry’s Next Move
Ms. Rank, who personally witnessed the coal industry response on March 31, characterized it as that of outrage. “They were just livid,” she said.
Joe Lovett said, “The coal industry is about ready to give up. Sure, they are apoplectic about this decision, but they see which way it is going…the coal industry is going to be the party challenging this. I don’t think they are going to be able to stop it.”
Rank said she was hopeful the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, bolstered by new appointments, would turn back challenges mounted by the coal industry. Historically, she said, it has been like “a brick wall.” Lovett, who has run up against that wall numerous times in the past, agreed. “The Fourth Circuit has really come around,” he said.
Stockman offered an overview of the next phase of the struggle:
“The coal industry response has already been quite strong in saying this will kill West Virginia’s economy. The industry always responds when there is even a hint that the law is possibly going to be enforced; the coal industry starts screaming about jobs. It is disingenuous because you don’t hear any outcry when what they call ‘market conditions’ force layoffs. And the industry is always moving toward mechanization over keeping the workers. What they are doing already is fomenting fear and dialing up the rhetoric. There are already some lawsuits underway. This is far from over. Arch Coal has filed a lawsuit against EPA because EPA is threatening to veto a permit for what would be the largest mountaintop removal effort ever. We are just going to have an ever more intense backlash from the coal industry as EPA finally starts doing its job.”
The EPA Has Finally Started To Do Its Job
All three experts agreed that the EPA was only one piece of the puzzle. To effect permanent, meaningful change, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department, and its Office of Surface Mining need to get behind the law as it stands today. Lovett was particularly critical of the Interior Department:
“The EPA is has really done a good job under Lisa Jackson. The Department of the Interior is the agency that has not changed, under [Ken] Salazar, since the Bush administration. And that is where the attention needs to be focused. They have been a real disappointment under the Obama administration.”
When asked about the performance of the EPA under Lisa Jackson’s leadership, Vivian Stockman said, “I think it is quite obvious that EPA is finally looking at science and the impacts on affected communities. I think that there are steps that the administration could do to make everything much more concrete.” She characterized last Thursday’s decision as a “giant step,” but felt there was much more to be done. A big part of that, in her view, is the need to bring enforcement to the forefront. “We might temper any celebration because enforcement is key,” she said.
Cindy Rank said, “The EPA is certainly leading the way in terms of being strong in terms of what they intend to do.” Rank and the others see the EPA as being way out in front of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Surface Mining, both of which she characterizes as much weaker in their responses to destructive surface mining practices. “The EPA is really our strongest hope for limiting or eliminating the valley fills,” she concluded.
The Way Forward
"I’ve been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don’t stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years.”
~Don Blankenship, Chair & CEO, Massey Energy,
to the New York Times, February 14, 2009
In West Virginia, Don Blankenship, Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, has been otherwise occupied with the explosion that occurred in his company’s mine on Monday, so those close to the issue haven’t heard much of his well-oiled bile this week. But he has powerful friends, like West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, a Democrat, to make surrogate arguments on behalf of Blankenship’s brand of Big Coal. And Manchin has already done that (just prior to the mine disaster). Big Coal, like Big Oil, is never really done.
But the opposition to Big Coal, to mountaintop removal, and to unsafe mining practices, is never really done either. Wendell Berry, a preeminent writer and environmentalist of the Appalachians, wrote in Missing Mountains, “…the forests, the soils and the streams are worth far more than the coal for which they are now being destroyed.”
He defended the statement with his customary eloquence:
“Before hearing the inevitable objections to that statement, I would remind the objectors that we are not talking here about the preservation of the “American way of life.” We are talking about the preservation of life itself. And in this conversation, people of sense do not put secondary things ahead of primary things. That precious creatures (or resources, if you insist) that are infinitely renewable can be destroyed for the sake of a resource that to be used must be forever destroyed, is not just a freak of short-term accounting and the externalization of cost - it is an inversion of our sense of what is good. It is madness.”
A bit of that eloquence is wont to slip into the speech of a good many people of the mountains, as to Cindy Rank, describing the current moment:
“We’ve learned from these mountains and hills that are now disappearing, and the streams that we rely on—these have to have some sort of value in the equation. And now, ten years later, EPA has put that into these documents. The whole idea of those values that aren’t valued in terms of money or finances just never found their way into this balancing act that the regulatory agencies had to administer in the face of such huge political pressure.”
That pressure makes the way forward perilous on any number of fronts. For one, there is the issue of enforcement. Ms. Stockman again:
“We’re not doing cartwheels and jumping for joy because we know that there is still this huge political aspect of it. And of course enforcement. Are new regulations and guidelines going to be followed or will the watchdog agencies continue to look the other way as the coal industry violates the law?”
Then there is the ever-present motion of the old political seesaw. Regulatory decisions go as administrations go. Four years—even eight years—go by quickly. EPA advisories and guidances do not carry the full force of law. And even when they do, you have industry collusion, bought and paid for governments—and courts, poor regulations, regulators who turn a blind eye, a multi-million dollar lobby, and mining disasters to contend with. On the other side—just people, people and the land itself, whose mute testament speaks volumes more than even the most eloquent of writers.
The people of coal country have been buffeted as few citizens have over the last generation. As compared to the rest of us, they have nothing—or so we might think. But if—if—Big Coal can be turned back from its most egregious practices, they may once more have the land, the remaining mountains, and the remaining streams. Coal country, if you have ever been there, is a vast and delicate treasure indeed.
But let’s not get carried away. Activists like Cindy Rank, Joe Lovett, and Vivian Stockman have been at this for more than a decade. Perhaps Ms. Rank sums it best in saying, “Things sound so much better than they have for 10 years that I can’t help but be encouraged.”
“Although,” she cautioned, “I’ve said that before and I have been caught short.”
* * *
Mountaintop removal was previously the subject of my Open Salon blog on March 31, 2009.
Wendell Berry’s quote is excerpted from Missing Mountains: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there: Kentuckians write against mountaintop removal (Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2005).