Mountaintop Removal: Week in Review

Here I sit, late on a Saturday night, trying to process a rather eventful week on matters pertaining to the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal coal mining. 

Actually, the backdrop to the most recent activities is the potentially game-changing development from the previous week when U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) issued a statement scolding the coal industry and denouncing mountaintop removal.

Then, this past Monday, hundreds of people convened in Charleston on the office of the state's so-called Department of Environmental Protection for a big rally against mountaintop removal.  NRDC senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. headlined the event, calling this rogue mining a "crime against nature" and a curse for the coalfield residents who bear the brunt of the damage associated with the decapitation of some 500 Appalachian peaks.  (My colleague Allen Hershkowitz eloquently captured the spirit of the rally in his blog.)

Then, a few days ago, I traveled to Charlottesville for a screening of COAL COUNTRY, co-hosted by NRDC.  On that day, the new head of the Obama administration's Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, Joe Pizarchik, spoke for the first time publicly on mountaintop removal since his confirmation.  In his interview with The Charleston Gazette, Pizarchik attempted to take the middle ground on the issue, committing his agency to reducing the environmental impacts of the mining while ruling out a regulatory ban on the controversial practice.  In his view, ending mountaintop removal is a job for congress.  As he told the paper:

"I certainly can appreciate how having an area where maybe they grew up or maybe their ancestors lived and they've got a lot of heritage there, having that environment so drastically changed by that practice, I can appreciate them having the desire to see that that practice not occur and destroy what they've come to cherish and grow," he said.  "That makes a lot of sense."

"In trying to figure out how to deal with that, we still have that statutory provision that allows for that activity to occur," Pizarchik said.  "Now, is it occurring in accordance with the standards?  Should there be more limitations on it?  Should there be more measures taken to protect?  Should there be some areas where the activity will not occur?

"I think all of those questions are valid questions for which we are seeking input on how to strike that balance."

Not exactly the most encouraging signal from the new OSM director.

On the same day, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a new comprehensive report on mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky.  Of note, the study found that while this mining has increased in recent years it is heavily concentrated in a handful of coalfield counties, with mine operators largely failing in their obligation to develop all those flattened mine sites.

A few key -- dare I say damning -- findings from the GAO report: 

MTR is concentrated in a few places.

  • Up to 23% of the land area of some counties in Appalachia has been permitted for surface coal mining.
  • In West Virginia, nearly 50% of mining is now concentrated in Boone, Logan, and Mingo counties.  (More than 178,000 connected acres in West Virginia have been opened to mining since 1990, including a single contiguous 21,700-acre area.)  In Kentucky, 44% of surface mining now takes place in Knott, Perry, and Pike counties.

Increased mining does not bring economic benefits to affected communities.

  • Despite increased surface mining, the counties cited above remain among the poorest in the nation.  (In Knott County, 18% of the land area has been surface-mined, yet 32% of residents still live below the poverty line.)

Mining destruction is extensive.

  • As of July 2008, surface coal-mining permits had been issued for 778,800 acres of land in eastern Kentucky and for 435,200 acres in West Virginia.
  • From 1990 to 2008, these states approved nearly 2,000 fills, allowing at least 4.9 billion cubic yards of mining waste to be dumped into valleys and hollows.
  • Since 2000 alone, permits issued would allow mining companies to dump waste into 177 miles of streams in West Virginia.

Coal companies have failed to reclaim mine sites.

  • Unreclaimed mine lands increased from 184,000 acres in January 1990 to 245,000 acres in July 2008, an annual increase of about 2.2 percent. 
  • Even with reclamation, mining has led to forest fragmentation, loss of wildlife habitat, increased flood potential, and reduced carbon sequestration (and some reclaimed areas do not differ from lands where reclamation wasn’t carried out). 
  • Only 12 of 212 permits issued in West Virginia from 2000 to 2008 proposed a post-mining land use of industrial or commercial development.

In a recent report by NRDC we debunk the myth of post-mining reclamation.  The fact is, to the mining industry the only good mountain in Appalachia is a flattened one.  Once it's ravaged, the vast majority of those profits benefit out-of-state coal companies while the folks in the affected communities are left a legacy of pollution and poverty.