'Scary Times' in Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Hearings Pushing People to the Brink

Right now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is holding public hearings in six Appalachian states on mountaintop removal coal mining.  This controversial practice is at long last under intense scrutiny by the Obama administration, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently holding up a number of proposed mountaintop removal permits over concerns about severe water quality impacts.  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has recommended that the Army Corps, the agency traditionally charged with permitting authority for strip mining under the Clean Water Act, think twice about approving permits for this type of mining. 


Yesterday kicked off the first in a series of public hearings, with the Corps convening a meeting in Charleston, West Virginia -- ground zero in the debate raging throughout the coalfields over the world's most extreme form of strip mining.  (Ken Ward, Jr. with the Charleston Gazette explains what the hearings are all about.)

Vernon Haltom, with one of the leading local groups fighting to protect the mountains, waters and people of Appalachia from the ravages of mountaintop removal, attended the hearing on behalf of Coal River Mountain Watch.  He was unable to actually get into the meeting room to offer public comments because the place was packed.  On his way in, he endured "a gauntlet of coal cult thugs hurling every insult imaginable" at him and the people attending with him -- including "an 80-year old woman enduring 300-pound thugs screaming obscenities within three feet of her ears."

[UPDATE: The Corps defended itself by claiming it ran the reportedly unruly meeting in "an orderly fashion."  Read its lame argument here and be sure to watch the video at the end of the post.]

I experienced a bit of this hostility from angry and fearful coal miners a few months ago when I attended the Charleston premier of the mountaintop removal documentary Coal Country.  I witnessed groups of men acting out their frustration with environmentalists over this issue by yelling, cursing, bullying, and generally trying to intimidate the crowd of movie-goers.  Yesterday's experience at the permit hearings, as might be expected, seems a thousand times worse.

Vernon reports that the Charleston police were too overwhelmed by the angry mob of miners to control the chaos.  At one point the police forced Vernon and his contingent of concerned (and peaceful) citizens to leave the building, where they were promptly "surrounded by more thugs pushing against us, threatening our lives, and again hurling insults."  After a few more minutes, the police required Vernon's group to leave the area, presumably for fear of what the miners might do to them.

"Essentially, police inability to control the mob resulted in our inability to give verbal comments," said Vernon.  "While the building was full, we were prepared to enter once a few people left, but the police removed us from our place in line and removed us from the premises while the insult-hurlers were allowed to stay."

Although some coalfield residents who oppose mountaintop removal were able to get inside the hearing and offer comments to the Corps, their statements were drowned out by the boisterous cries of mining supporters in the room.  According to Vernon, the agency officials moderating the hearing did nothing to try to quiet the crowd and allow citizens to speak.  When the speakers left the hearing, the police refused to escort them to their vehicles, "forcing them to run the gauntlet without protection."

Vernon said someone shouted at the pro-mountain citizens that "this is democracy working."  On the contrary, federal authorities and the police allowing mob rule to prevent peaceful citizens from commenting in a public hearing on the need to protect their homes, lives and communities from rogue coal mining is the opposite of democracy working.  

"Violent, uncontrollable mobs go unchecked and even encouraged by industry and political leaders," Vernon added. "These are scary times in Appalachia."

While it may be understandable that miners are worried about losing their jobs if the pending mountaintop removal projects are blocked by federal regulators, the fact is that far fewer miners are required to remove a mountain than to mine it underground.  That's because mechanization replaces the miners.  And even though the coalfields of Appalachia are economically dependent on mining at the moment, it is beyond me how the industry can justify the level of destruction this "strip mining on steroids" entails.  Already some 500 Appalachian summits have been lost -- left lifeless like moonscapes, devoid of their lush forests and leaving polluted waterways in their wake.  The people who call this region home are by and large not opposed to mining -- what they oppose is the reckless destruction of the natural resources they revere, the air and water pollution threatening their health, the property damage and safety hazards posed by incessant blasting, and the diminished quality of life resulting from the world's worst coal mining.

These are the voices the Obama administration must hear.  And these are the people who will not be silenced by the mining industry's assault.  And now is the time for every American to stand with Appalachia, to go tell it on the mountain that the madness of this abominable coal mining must end.

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. ring true today in the hollows:

"Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake.  Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."