President Obama: Go See the Mountains, Then Save Them

(Photo by J. Henry Fair)

It is a national shame that mining companies are allowed to blast America's oldest mountains to smithereens -- all for the sake of dirty coal.  Indeed, it is unfathomable that here in America, where the Adirondacks are adored and the Rockies are revered, that the Appalachian Mountains -- older than the Himalayas and so integral to our nation's heritage -- are steadily being reduced to lifeless moonscapes.  Make no mistake about it:  mountaintop removal coal mining is the worst ongoing environmental tragedy our country has ever endured.  The question is whether the Obama administration will finally put a stop to it. 

In the Washington Post today, NRDC attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. urged President Obama to end the Appalachian apocalypse, saying: "[G]overnment claims of doing everything possible to halt the holocaust are simply not true. George Bush gutted Clean Water Act protections. Obama must restore them."

Indeed, for too long our elected leaders have allowed mining companies to get away with using dynamite to literally blow the peaks right off of our mountains to get at thin cake layer-like seams of coal underneath, and then fill the valleys and streams below with the mining waste.  The scars of this destructive practice can be seen up and down Appalachia, where 500 mountains, covering roughly a million acres, have already been flattened -- eviscerating breathtaking landscapes, wiping out lush forests along with wildlife habitat, burying pristine valley streams under tons of rubble, polluting the air with coal ash and poisoning drinking water with toxic contaminates, and ravaging the lives of residents throughout the region. 

Adding insult to injury, mountains that took hundreds of millions of years to form can be flattened in months through this highly mechanized process, which enables coal companies to employ fewer workers for far less time than other types of mining.  Despite the coal industry's claims, the vast majority of desolate wasteland resulting from the mining can never be reclaimed to natural standards, nor has much of the open space spurred economic development.  

Recently, senior administration officials weighed into the fray over mountaintop removal with a policy announcement that fell short of the only sensible solution -- an immediate end to the world's most destructive mining.  More of a promise than a policy, federal officials from several regulatory agencies announced "unprecedented steps" aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal in the six Appalachian states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

Perhaps this tepid course of action actually will make it harder for mining companies to evade "streamlined" environmental review when seeking permits to blow up mountains.  For the most part, however, the new policy fits the administration's preferred approach to this controversial mining:  mixing strong words with weak action.  Hardly unprecedented, these modest bureaucratic measures are quite frankly inadequate.  Citizens living in the coalfields of Appalachia deserve justice, not vague assurances about tighter permit reviews that ultimately will allow this abhorrent mining practice to proceed largely unchecked.

The science is clear:  mountaintop removal devastates ecosystems, harms communities, and undermines long-term economic prospects for the entire region.  Searching for environmentally acceptable mountaintop removal, which the Obama administration has not ruled out, is futile.  This administration promised a science-based environmental policy and that is impossible to square with mountaintop removal.  Nor does this extreme strip mining fit within the framework of clean energy solutions to the climate crisis.

With the stroke of a pen, President Obama can stop the devastation by undoing the so-called "fill" rule adopted by the Bush administration in 2002 that gives the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to permit coal companies to use streams as waste dumps.  Despite the suggestions by Obama officials that the federal government cannot prevent mountaintop removal mining under current law, the fact is that the administration could decide by regulation not to treat coal mine waste as "fill material" -- thus preventing the Corps of Engineers from permitting the discharge of mountaintop removal wastes into valley streams.  Moreover, the president could lend his support for bi-partisan bills in Congress right now -- the Clean Water Protection Act in the House and the Appalachia Restoration Act in the Senate -- that would help halt mountaintop removal.

As dirty and dangerous as it is, coal may be part of our foreseeable energy future, but that doesn't mean we should let mining companies get away with leveling the Appalachians, clear-cutting some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world, obliterating streams, and polluting drinking water.  Nor should they be allowed to destroy the quality of life for those who make their home in the region. 

How many more mountains must fall and how much longer must our fellow Americans suffer before our leaders take bold and decisive action to preserve Appalachian homes, health and heritage?  Now is the time for our nation to stop mountaintop removal and invest in clean, renewable energy sources that will safely and efficiently fuel our future.  That is the change we need and we cannot afford to wait much longer for it.

Following last week's historic vote on landmark climate legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Obama had this to say

"The American people have made their choice. They expect us to move forward right now at this moment of great challenge, and stake our claim on the future -- a stronger, cleaner, and more prosperous future where we meet our obligations to our citizens, our children, and to God's creation -- and where the United States of America leads once again."

The president is right about all that, and I especially applaud him for invoking the importance of caring for creation.  Certainly he would agree then that only God should move mountains -- not man-made mega-sized earth moving machines.

So, Mr. President, we urge you to back your words with real action by dispatching top administration officials to Appalachia to see firsthand what they've pledged to regulate.  Better yet, go see the destruction yourself.  The region is just a short drive from Washington, D.C. or even a quicker flight.  Simply hop in the Marine One helicopter or divert Air Force One to fly over the seemingly endless moonscapes that once were mountains.  I know from personal experience that seeing is believing -- afterwards I'm confident that you will say "Yes We Can" end mountaintop removal coal mining.  Yes, you will.