Activists from across Appalachia are in Washington, DC, this week to call attention to mountaintop removal coal mining, the controversial practice of blowing up mountains to reach coal reserves. Appalachia Rising participants will march from the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters to the White House on Monday and hold a lobby day Tuesday to call attention to the practice they say is destroying their homes and communities.
“The region’s not going to survive much longer if we don’t do something soon,” says Dustin White of Charleston, W.Va., in town for this week’s events. White, a 27-year-old with a crew cut and glasses, is orginally from James Creek, a community of about 100 people on Cook Mountain in the southwestern part of West Virginia. The mountain was named for one of his ancestors, and many are buried nearby. Two months ago, Patriot Coal Corporation, one of the largest mining companies in the country, told White’s father, a former coal miner, that they would soon be blasting near his home.
White describes nearby towns that are no longer, as residents have been bought out by coal companies or simply abandoned due to the blasting and diminished quality of life. There’s Lindytown, which sits on the other side of Cook Mountain in the valley below a Massey MTR site, which he says went from 100 people a few years ago to just three today. White fears the same might happen to his town.
“I’m in limbo—I don’t know whether my hometown is going to exist in 20 years,” said White.
“Twenty? Try five!” chimed in Mary Love, an anti-mountaintop-removal activist from Kentucky.
White says he’s not anti-mining. He just thinks it can and should be done safely underground, the way it was before mining companies had the machinery, firepower, and more lenient environmental rules that have allowed them to blast mountains and dump the waste in nearby valleys. The practice was also accelerated in the past eight years, thanks to a 2002 Bush administration change to the Clean Water Act rules that made it legal to fill valleys with waste from blast sites. The same change also made it legal to dump the debris and even waste like old toilets and junk cars into valleys.
While topless mountains serve as shocking visual evidence of environmental devastation in Appalachia, it’s the waste issue that creates real problems for communities in the region. After the tops of the mountains are blown off, the waste debris dumped in nearby valleys often blocks waterways and causes flooding. The debris includes a number of toxic heavy metals that end up in the water, causing a litany of health problems. Areas close to the blast sites have lower birth weights and higher rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. A study released earlier this year found an average of 11,000 more premature deaths per 100,000 residents in the counties with the heaviest mining.
There has been some improvement in oversight on MTR under the Obama administration, but not as much as the folks rallying in DC would like to see. In June 2009, the Obama administration announced that it was ending fast-tracked reviews for MTR operation permits and would require tougher environmental review before permits are issued. The EPA later announced that it was putting pending permits through closer scrutiny, and released new guidance in April on enforcement of existing state and federal laws. But the agency has also approved new MTR permits, which hasn’t given activists much hope that things have changed enough to protect their communities.
Watch this EarthJustice video to see just how shocking mountaintop removal can be.