Hollywood couldn't script a better corporate villain than Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the nation's fourth largest coal company. He has built his company up largely by tearing down the mountains of his home-state of West Virginia. Under his control, Massey has become the undisputed leader in the most destructive strip mining practice on earth -- mountaintop removal -- as well as a repeat violator of federal pollution laws.
The infamous legend of Don Blankenship grew last week when he delivered a blistering speech attacking the press and environmentalists as "communists," "atheists," and "greeniacs", and comparing critics of the coal industry to Osama Bin Laden. After labeling conservation a slippery slope to socialism, The Don urged his fellow industry execs to be "bold" in challenging the enemies of coal.
As unhinged as his rant may seem, Mr. Blankenship does have reason to worry. Global warming has Americans waking up to the reality that dirty coal and other fossil fuels represent more of the problem, not the solution to the world's energy crisis. That said, the dirty energy industry has ruled the day under the Bush administration and now it's seeking huge going-away presents before the Obama administration takes over next year.
In fact, any day now the Bush EPA is expected to announce that it is officially weakening environmental protections to allow mining waste to be dumped in and along streams and rivers. This rather routine -- yet illegal -- activity is what has enabled mountaintop removal coal mining to ravage Appalachia during President Bush's tenure.
Last week Kentucky's governor joined environmentalists in denouncing EPA's proposed rule change. And earlier this week the governor of Tennessee voiced his dissent. In his letter to the agency, Gov. Phil Bredesen notes that more than 1,200 miles of streams in central Appalachia have been directly impacted by coal mining, either by being mined through or by being buried under spoiled disposal sites. He blasts the 'poor job' done by the federal Office of Surface Mining of protecting streams from the coal mining pollution. Like his counterpart in Kentucky, Gov. Bredesen argues that safeguarding his state's water quality should take precedence over relaxing environmental rules for the coal industry.
Too bad the governor of West Virginia hasn't taken a stand. That state, which markets its mountains as the major attraction, is actually ground zero for mountaintop mining. Yet Governor Joe Manchin, like his predecessors, appears content to let King Coal continue its reign no matter the cost to his constituents. Yesterday in fact, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved Massey Energy's permit to mountaintop mine Coal River Mountain, including hundreds of acres that could generate power from a proposed wind farm.
Apparently, the DEP repeatedly denied citizens' requests for public hearings related to the proposed mining. Local citizens led by Coal River Mountain Watch are again pleading with Governor Manchin to halt the operation and act on his commitment to renewable energy and to the citizens of West Virginia by rescinding the mining permits.
"Coal River Mountain has enough wind potential to provide electricity for between 100,000 and 150,000 homes, forever, while creating about 50 well-paying, permanent jobs in an area long dependent upon sparse, temporary coal mining jobs," says Rory McIlmoil of Coal River Mountain Watch. "The wind farm would generate over ten times more county revenue than the mountaintop removal operations would. This additional income would stimulate new economic development projects and the creation of new and lasting jobs for the county."
The mining that could begin on the mountain as early as today would immediately impact 24 megawatts of wind potential, and permanent jobs related to the operation of the wind farm. Research on the Coal River Wind Project confirms that wind is the better economic option for Coal River Mountain, but that depends on the mountain being left intact.
McIlmoil says that Gov. Manchin has received a petition with 10,000 signatures, over 4,000 emails and nearly 500 phone calls calling for him to stop the destruction and support wind power -- yet his silence is as deafening as the explosions which are set to detonate on the mountaintop. He also has ignored a recent opinion survey by the Civil Society Institute and Citizens Lead for Energy Action Now (CLEAN), showing that 62% of West Virginians oppose his decision against stopping Massey Energy from using mountaintop removal coal mining to level a section of Coal River Mountain that could have been used for a wind farm. Citizens had also requested a hearing on the water pollution permits for Massey's Coal River Mountain operation, but the DEP denied this request on the same day that it granted the mountaintop mining permit.
Though Massey's new permit only impacts a small area on Coal River Mountain, once the mining begins it will be more difficult to stop, and so more of the wind resource will be lost. Coal River Mountain Watch and concerned citizens plan to keep the pressure on the governor to do the right thing for the state and for local residents by preserving Coal River Mountain's wind potential.
Next month a new economic study will be released, which will show that wind development is a better land use option than mountaintop removal coal mining -- not only for Coal River Mountain, but for all areas in southern West Virginia that exhibit good wind potential.
Despite Don Blankenship's bluster, a new wind is blowing in this country; it is only a matter of time before blowing up mountains to mine dirty coal comes to an end in this country. That will be a huge step toward stopping King Coal's reign of terror on our nation's natural resources and communities.
Hey Gov. Manchin, don't you see that West Virginia is "Wild and Winderful"?