The Murky Morass That is Mountaintop Removal

Here we go again: Today the federal appeals court (4th Circuit) in Richmond rejected a request by public interest groups to reconsider its decision last month to overturn a lower court ruling that had curtailed mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia.  With a 4-3 majority ruling against a rehearing, it looks like the Army Corps of Engineers can proceed with its plans to issue permits that will result in coal companies filling more valleys (and burying more headwater streams) with mining waste.

Of the judges who favored a new review of the case, Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson hit the nail on the head by writing in his dissent:

"...West Virginia is witnessing in the Appalachian headwaters the long, sad decline that Virginia and Maryland have seen with the Chesapeake Bay.  Once the ecologies of streams and rivers and bays and oceans turn, they cannot easily be reclaimed. Most often than not, the waterway is simply gone for good."

Sad to say, but with the U.S. Court of Appeals continuing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the prospect of stopping mountaintop removal once and for all in the courts appears to be a long shot

Since the legal system seems to provide little or no recourse these days, it's up to our elected officials to finally do the right thing.  All the more reason to wonder (and worry over) why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently opted to allow more than three dozen mountaintop removal permits in West Virginia to proceed.

The current situation is more than a bit muddled and I certainly don't presume to know what's going on at the moment.  But let's step back and assess where we find ourselves in this fight right now...

UPDATE: In a front-page story today, the Los Angeles Times reports on the Obama administration's perplexing policy position on mountaintop removal.

First off, there is no doubt that the Obama administration is infinitely better than the Bush administration on this issue -- that's primarily because the previous administration was so horrible.  Clearly, the new administration has taken a couple of positive steps forward.  Carefully examining the environmental impact of proposed mountaintop removal operations, as EPA has done in some cases, is necessary.  It is also heartening that the Interior Department has moved to rescind the Bush administration's weakening changes to the long-standing stream buffer zone rule.  But these necessary and appropriate steps fall far short of what is sufficient.  

The Obama administration seems to be assuming that some mountaintop removal mining -- perhaps even a lot of it -- is okay.  But the people who live in Appalachia know better.  Mountaintop removal, the world's worst strip mining, is unacceptable.  Period.  Objecting to some proposed mining permits, but green-lighting others, does not recognize this basic fact.  Nor does reinstating the old, more stringent buffer zone rule without committing to enforce it, as prior administrations had unfortunately done.  

To do right by the people of Appalachia, President Obama needs to end mountaintop removal.  There are bi-partisan bills in Congress right now -- the Clean Water Protection Act in the House and the Appalachia Restoration Act in the Senate -- that target the practice, and the president can announce his intent to sign legislation that ends mountaintop removal once and for all. 

Similarly, the EPA and the Army Corps of Enginneers can immediately take steps to reverse the administrative regulation they adopted in 2002 that gave the Corps the authority to permit the dumping of waste in surface waters, which also would curtail mountaintop removal coal mining.

You'd think that halting the Appalachian Apocalypse would be a no-brainer.  Unfortunately, the false perception still holds that coal is the economic engine of the region's downtrodden economy.  This is a myth perpetuated by the politically powerful coal industry.  Consider West Virginia as an example.  Jobs from mining account for just 3.3% employment in the Mountain State -- we're talking less than 20,000 jobs total, compared to the halcion days back in 1940 when there were more than 130,000 coal miners in the state.

It's important to note that back then practically all coal miners worked underground.  Whereas an undergound operation might employ hundreds of miners for several years, the typical mountaintop removal operation -- which is far more environmentally destructive -- is largely mechanized and therefore employs only a handful of miners for several months or a few years at most.  Think about it this way: banning mountaintop removal would actually INCREASE jobs because more miners would be needed to go back inside the mountain to dig out the coal rather than blowing the top off the mountain with high explosives and filling the valleys and streams down below with toxic debris.

I encourage everyone to consider the compelling -- and common sense --economic case against mountaintop removal

Simply put, if we're banking our country's energy future on the dirty energy of the past -- particularly that which is produced by sacrificing Appalachia's mountains, streams, forests, wildlife, and fellow Americans living in the coalfields -- then we risk undermining the Obama administration's investments in 21st Century clean energy solutions that will protect our planet, produce more jobs and preserve our natural resources.