MAC: Mines and Communities

Activists Say New Trees No Justification for Missing Mountains

Published by MAC on 2004-12-18

Activists Say New Trees No Justification for Missing Mountains

by Jessica Azulay, The NewStandard

December 18 2004

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Grassroots environmental organizations scoffed at a government and industry initiative to reforest sites stripped by mountaintop removal coal mining.

- Appalachian environmental groups yesterday accused the coal industry and government regulators of attempting to cover up the long-term affects of a devastating form of strip mining by signing a "restoration initiative." The groups -- some of which were themselves asked to join in signing the non-binding agreement to "to promote the planting of high-value hardwood trees on reclaimed coal mines" -- said they were in favor of attempts to reforest mined areas, but said their priority was to obtain a moratorium on all new "mountaintop removal" mining projects.

"We certainly agree that coal companies must make every attempt to restore our native forests to strip-mined lands," said West Virginia environmental activist and coal-miner’s daughter Judy Bonds, in a press statement about the initiative. "But we need more details about this project. If this initiative is just another justification for mountaintop removal -- a completely unnecessary and hugely damaging coal-mining process that must be banned now -- then we can’t support it." Bonds works with Coal River Mountain Watch, a small, local organization struggling to combat the destructive effects of mountaintop removal mining on their community.

A type of strip mining little known outside of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee, mountaintop removal is an especially extreme coal extraction technique. Using heavy explosives and large machinery, coal companies blast and scrape up to 800 feet off the top of mountains to expose the thin coal seams underneath. The coal is removed, and the "overburden" -- everything left --- is pushed into the neighboring valleys.

Kayford Mountain

PHOTO: A massive dragline, dwarfed by the huge scale of the operation, at work on a mountaintop removal operation near Kayford Mountain, W.Va Oct. 19, 2003. Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion

In areas where mountaintop removal mining is prevalent, once rolling mountains are replaced with naked sores and polluted slurry ponds filled with the toxic leftovers of the coal washing process.

On Wednesday, coal industry representatives and federal regulators gathered in Roanoke, West Virginia to sign a "Statement of Mutual Intent for the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative." The document, which was drafted by the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), encourages forest restoration through soil grading techniques, use of noncompetitive ground vegetative covers, and planting fast-growing as well as "commercially valuable" trees.

Though a press release circulated before the signing stated that environmental organizations would be endorsing the initiative, several of the region’s prominent groups refused to oblige.

Some groups said they did not even know about the initiative before hand and expressed cynicism over OSMRE’s motives.

Brushy coal impoundment slurry Fork

PHOTO: Marfork Coal's (a Massey Energy subsidiary) Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, which, at its final stage, will hold 8 billions of gallon of coal waste sludge. The impoundment partially lies over old underground mines and is directly upstream from the town of Whitesville, W. Va. May 30, 2003. Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion

"The way the statement is written, it sounds like mountain range removal is fine, as long as the coal companies try to plant some trees," said Vernon Haltom, a volunteer with Coal River Mountain Watch.

"This statement does admit, however, that forests are vitally important for soil and water conservation, water quality, hydrologic balance and carbon sequestration," Haltom added in his press statement. "Perhaps the coal industry will finally admit that forested mountaintops aren’t worthless, after all."

At least two organizations -- the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition -- were asked ahead of time if they wanted to sign onto the initiative. Both refused.

"OSM and its cohorts appear to be trying to justify more mountaintop removal mining," said Jenet Fout, who co-directs the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, in a statement to the press. "We certainly want the industry and regulators to do everything possible to get native hardwoods growing on already destroyed lands, but we want a moratorium on any new mountaintop removal activity until the industry proves it can restore mined lands, as well as our precious headwater streams."

Mountaintop removal

PHOTO: Mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining in southern West Virginia in May 2003 Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

A 2003 Environmental Protection Agency study in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee found that approximately 1,200 miles of headwater streams had been polluted by valley fills and toxic coal sludge between 1992 and 2002.

Fout said she was skeptical about the feasibility of the initiative, given the biological diversity of West Virginia’s forests. "Let’s be honest," she said. "The best the industry can do, if it actually spends the vast sums that will be required to fulfill this pledge, is to plant tree farms. Shallow-rooted pines will likely grow, but what are the long-term prospects for hardwoods? ‘Reforestation’ isn’t going to happen on strip-mined lands."

Activists working to end the mining practice have taken to calling their communities "national sacrifice areas" for the nation’s cheap energy.

According to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, mountaintop removers have already converted over 500 square miles of forested mountains into treeless moonscapes where nothing can grow. Thousands more are permitted for ruin.

Plantación de nuevos árboles no justifica desaparición de montañas

Por Jessica Azulay - The NewStandard

Diciembre 18, 2004

Organizaciones de base ironizaron sobre una iniciativa del gobierno y la industria minera para reforestar zonas de montaña explotadas por la minería de carbón.

Diciembre 18 - Grupos ambientalistas de Appalache acusaron a la industria del carbón y a los agentes de control oficiales de pretender cubrir los efectos a largo plazo de una devastadora forma de explotación minera firmando la llamada "iniciativa de restauración". Dichos grupos - algunos de los cuales fueron invitados a firmar el acuerdo "para la plantación de árboles de valiosa madera en minas de carbón restituidas" - dijeron que están a favor de cualquier iniciativa cuyo objeto sea la reforestación de áreas explotadas por la minería, pero que su prioridad es lograr una moratoria de nuevas explotaciones a cielo abierto en las montañas.

"Estamos de acuerdo en que las compañías mineras deben hacer todos los esfuerzos para reponer nuestros bosques nativos en los territorios explotados" asegura en un comunicado de prensa sobre la iniciativa la activista ambiental de West Virginia, e hija de un minero, Judy Bonds. "Necesitamos más detalles sobre este proyecto. Si esta iniciativa es solo otro justificativo para la extracción en montañas - un proceso de explotación tan perjudicial como innecesario que debe ser prohibido urgentemente - no podemos apoyarlo". Bonds trabaja para el Observatorio de Carbón en River Mountain, una pequeña organización local que lucha contra los efectos destructivos de la minería en su comunidad.

Un tipo de explotación minera poco conocido fuera de West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, y Tennessee, la técnica de extracción de carbón en montaña es particularmente extrema. Usando fuertes explosivos y maquinaria de gran escala, las compañías vuelan y trozan cerca de 800 pies de la cima de las montañas para liberar las finas vetas de carbón que están debajo. El carbón es removido, y todo lo demás se descarga en los valles vecinos.

Un estudio de la Agencia de Protección Ambiental, realizado en 2003 en Kentucky, West Virginia y Tennessee, concluyó que aproximadamente 1,200 millas de ríos fueron contaminadas a causa del llenado de los valles y tóxicos derivados del carbón entre los años 1992 y 2002.

Según la Coalición Ambiental del Valle de Ohio, las compañías mineras han convertido casi 500 millas cuadradas de montañas boscosas en cráteres sin árboles donde nada puede crecer.

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U.S. sued to stop mountaintop mining

Bob Bird, The Associated Press

28th Janaury 2005

Pikeville, Ky. - Environmentalists have sued the federal government in an attempt to stop coal mining companies from lopping off the tops of mountains and dumping the rocks and dirt into valleys.

The lawsuit seeks to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for the dumping, which environmentalists claim will destroy Kentucky's streams.

"This is an absurd and outrageous abuse of their power and neglect of their duty to protect the nation's waterways," said Teri Blanton, a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, one of three groups that filed the suit Thursday in Lexington.

The mining industry has increasingly relied on mountaintop removal to expose coal seams because it's a quick and efficient process.

Industry's response

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said environmentalists overstate the effect of valley fills - especially by claiming that they fill streams.

Actually, Caylor said, the dirt and rock is dumped in valleys with tiny ditches that are dry except during rainy periods and do not support fish.

"If these were not deemed streams, which they are not, then we wouldn't have a problem," he said.

Caylor said if the lawsuit is successful, coal companies would be hampered in their ability to work "because all mining operations have excess rock and dirt that has to be placed somewhere. If you cannot have a fill, you can't mine coal."

The lawsuit mirrors one filed in West Virginia in 2002. U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin issued an injunction stopping the Corps from issuing the permits there in July; that case is under appeal.

Clean Water Act cited

Blanton said that in the last three years the Corps has rubber-stamped more than 50 permits for 191 valley fills that will destroy more than 35 miles of streams in Kentucky.

Blanton's group, along with Kentucky Riverkeeper and Kentucky Waterways Alliance, claim in the lawsuit that the Corps is violating the Clean Water Act.

Dave Hewitt, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, said his agency had no immediate comment.

Patsy Carter, a resident of Huntleyville in Martin County, said she is surrounded by mountaintop removal mining operations.

"I live with what the coal industry does to the land and the people every day," she said. "You can cut a tree. It will grow back. You cut the top off a mountain and it's gone forever."

Authors: Ban mountaintop removal mining

By Art Jester, Herald-Leader Staff Writer

April 21, 2005

A group of Kentucky authors wants the state to outlaw a widely used but controversial coal-mining method because it causes "appalling destruction to the land" and "economic and cultural violence" to the entire state.

The statement by 16 of Kentucky's best-known authors came today, after their two-day tour of mountaintop removal strip mining sites in Leslie and Perry counties.

It was presented in a news conference at Eastern Kentucky University, in conjunction with a social action group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which organized the tour.

Probably the toughest words in the authors' 1 1/2-page, double-spaced document came in the concluding paragraph:

"We are horrified that this practice is legal. We are angry that representatives in our own government are allowing this to happen. Mountaintop removal is not right; it is not acceptable, and it is an act we will fight.

"We call for the abolition of mountaintop removal and urge our fellow citizens to pressure elected officials in every way to stop this criminal desecration of our commonwealth."

This afternoon, Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, responded to the authors' declaration with a brief statement.

"Mountaintop removal mining affects a very small percentage of the mountains," he said. "It maximizes coal recovery. It pays the landowner handsomely. It leaves valuable flat land for future generations."

Caylor said the authors' statement "was an emotional tirade playing fast and loose with statements of facts. These are the same people who would be outraged if they knew where their ground beef came from."

Mountaintop removal mining uses explosives first to blast away dirt and rock above a coal seam. Excavators then remove alternate lawyers of dirt and coal. After the coal is removed, the remaining dirt is bulldozed relatively flat, or at least into a plateau. Excess dirt and rock are dumped into adjacent hollows, which become what are called valley fills.

The de facto chairman of the authors' group who drafted the first version of the statement was Silas House, a novelist who teaches English and writing at EKU.

House said the statement was adopted unanimously after the authors met this morning at the Hindman Settlement School to craft a final version.

"Everybody was absolutely 100 percent behind the statement and they burst into applause after we voted on it," House said.

House, a former mail carrier in his native Laurel County who has become one of Kentucky's most respected writers, said the "problem is the people are not aware" of the extent of environmental destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining.

"This state is filled with good people who would care about this if they knew about it," House said.

In addition to House, some of the other participating authors were: Gwyn Hyman Rubio, Ed McClanahan, Erik Reece, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Charles Bracelen Flood, Kristin Johannsen, Anne Shelby, Artie Ann Bates, Loyal Jones and Bob Sloan.

Mountaintop removal protests planned in four states

Associated Press

May 22, 2005

Charleston, W.Va. -- A group opposed to mountaintop removal mining is looking for volunteer protesters who are lawyers, writers, photographers, artists and "science geeks" to gather at a training camp Tuesday to prepare for Mountain Justice Summer.

About 100 people are expected to attend the weeklong training at the Appalachian South Folk Life Center near Pipestem State Park, said Dave Cooper, a Mountain Justice Summer member from Lexington, Ky. Volunteers will take mandatory classes in nonviolence and de-escalation, security, dealing with threats and Appalachian mountain culture.

Hundreds of people from across the country are expected to participate in "actions" this summer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Members hope to have at least 40 full-time volunteers working on events from June through August, said Chris Irwin, a law student in Knoxville, Tenn.

Tactics will include rallies, nonviolent civil disobedience like chaining people to coal company gates, "listening projects" involving interviewing residents in coal communities, water and plant surveys, public relations and lobbying, monitoring coal mining permits and regulatory meetings, and helping people affected by mountaintop removal mining.

The group's Web site says its goals are to raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining; escalate resistance to it; build support, unify and strengthen regional groups fighting surface mining; and encourage conservation and efficiency, solar and wind energy as alternatives to coal.

Much of the work in West Virginia will focus on educating and informing people about mining.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover coal seams. Leftover rock and dirt is deposited into nearby valleys, burying streams.

"I am finding out here along the Coal River people don't even know what mountaintop removal is," said Bo Webb of Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville, Boone County. "They seem to want to bury their heads in the coal dust."

At least one coal company is concerned enough about the environmentalists' plans to warn all its employees about how to behave when faced with protesters.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal has sent a form letter for all its site general managers to pass on to employees telling them to be careful, said John Snider, the company's vice president for external affairs, who is based in Charleston.

If people chain themselves to company gates or property, employees should leave them alone and call the police, Snider said. Employees should not touch protesters or talk to them.

"I would say if they are on private property, that would be civil disobedience, which is violence. It's a form of it," Snider said. "We are not a violent company. We don't want anyone hurt, either protesters or our people.

"This letter was not to be antagonistic. It was meant to inform our employees, 'Hey guys, you need to be careful this summer,'" Snider said.

Snider said the company considers Mountain Justice Summer a part of the Earth First movement and expects protesters to try to use monkey wrenches and other items to destroy coal mining equipment.

Mountain Justice Summer members say they plan no property destruction or violence of any kind. Although some Earth First members will be participating in Mountain Justice Summer activities, the groups are not otherwise affiliated, Cooper said.

College students, members of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and similar groups in Tennessee and Virginia will be participating, Cooper said.

Mountain Justice Summer members are opposed to all forms of strip mining, especially mountaintop removal, because they say it destroys ecosystems and watersheds.

Also, the mountains are part of the southern Appalachian culture, and by destroying mountains, coal companies are destroying a culture, Irwin said.

"What they are betting on is silence," Irwin said. "We want to get the word out."

Environmentalists, coal industry battle over mountaintop mining

July 10, 2005

By Bob Downing, Knight Ridder Newspapers

BOB WHITE, W.Va. - (KRT) - Maria Gunnoe could be the poster child for a
controversy spreading across the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

The 37-year-old waitress, mother of two and daughter of a coal miner knows from experience what can happen when a mountaintop is removed.

The coal industry calls it mountaintop mining. Environmentalists describe it as strip-mining on steroids.

Trees and topsoil are bulldozed and the top of the mountain is blasted away layer by layer to reach the low-sulfur coal in seams too narrow to economically mine in traditional ways.

As the top of the mountain is flattened, dirt and rock are pushed into nearby hollows, burying the headwaters of streams.

Gunnoe's 40-acre farm, where her family has lived for four generations, lies in the shadow of Island Creek Mountain in Boone County, W.Va., about 45 miles southwest of Charleston.

The Jupiter mine opened on Island Creek Mountain in 2000, and the mountaintop is slowly disappearing. The headwaters of Big Branch Creek are now covered by a giant V-shaped earthen fill atop the valley.

On June 16, 2003, after heavy rains, a wall of water came tumbling down Big Branch Creek. It threatened the Gunnoe house, wiped out one bridge and weakened another, damaged the Gunnoes' septic system and polluted their well. The family was trapped until the floodwaters subsided.

It was not the first flood the family had faced since the mine opened, but it was the biggest.

Mine officials told Gunnoe the flood was an act of God. She thanked God no one was killed.

"It was scary... and the worst experience I've ever been through," said Gunnoe, who now calls herself a coalfield activist.

Mountaintop removal is a major issue in southern West Virginia, and the practice has spread into eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and western Virginia.

Perhaps 5 percent of all coal burned for electricity in the United States was mined through mountaintop removal. It represents nearly one-third of Appalachian coal production and 95 percent of surface mining in West Virginia, according to industry figures.

The mining method has been used since the late 1970s, but it has become more popular as the equipment has gotten bigger and capable of removing up to 1,000 feet of mountaintop to expose coal that is highly desired by electric utilities.

The coal industry says mountaintop mining is necessary to quickly and efficiently get to coal that is needed to fuel America's economy.

A federal report estimated that between 1992 and 2012, a total of 816,000 acres in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee would be affected by mountaintop removal.

Also affected, the report said, would be 1,200 miles of streams buried under valley fills.

The mining is "devastating to West Virginia's streams," said Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. "It's annihilating them. They're being buried and the majority are very valuable headwater streams. ... What's happening is outrageous. It's wholesale ecosystem destruction."

Stout said he's afraid mountaintop removal will destroy drinking water in West Virginia and Kentucky.

"It's that severe and it's that serious," he said.

This summer a major campaign is under way in central Appalachia as environmentalists try to put a spotlight on mountaintop removal.

The four-month effort, dubbed Mountain Justice Summer, is being promoted by a Tennessee-based affiliate of the radical eco-group EarthFirst. The campaign is patterned after Redwood Summer, a 1990 movement to save old-growth forests from intensive logging in northern California.

Though the campaign is just getting under way, the coal industry is concerned.

One survey has shown that 56 percent of West Virginia residents oppose mountaintop mining.

A common complaint is the constant blasting. West Virginia uses 1,500 tons of explosive per day, more than any other state. The blasting is noisy and creates dust problems that may affect wells.

Dan Miller, a spokesman for the West Virginia Coal Association in Charleston, said the state's coal industry has not done a good job explaining mountaintop mining.

"It sounds harsh... but there are more mountains in West Virginia than we could ever mine," Miller said. "It's just silly to think that we are leveling all the mountains. ... And we're not filling up valleys. We're filling up the heads of hollows only."

As for the issue of burying streams, the industry says only 1 percent of the streams are filled and many of them only intermittently had water and aquatic life.

The coal industry estimates that 1 percent of West Virginia land has been surface-mined for coal. Miller said that percentage is higher - perhaps 3 to 5 percent - in Boone, Mingo and Logan counties.

But mountaintop removal is probably waning in West Virginia, he said.

"We've mined more coal by that method than we likely will in the future," Miller said, explaining that mountaintop removal requires a major investment in equipment that makes its widespread use unlikely.

The best way to get a picture of mountaintop removal is from the air.

In a drive up mountain hollows, outcroppings and mine entrances are visible, but much of the mining remains out of sight. From the air, much more can be seen.

What stands out are the brown-white plateaus, clearly visible 10 miles and more away. They are surrounded by forested ridges and knobs.

The mined areas appear barren, with sludge ponds filled with gritty, black, chemical-laced runoff and sedimentation ponds filled with a greenish liquid.

Some mines are small - perhaps several hundred acres. Others, like Hobet 21 on the Boone-Lincoln county line and Kayford Mountain on the Kanawha-Boone-Raleigh county line, cover thousands of acres.

The sites are dominated by giant machines: $100 million draglines, and 20-story-high shovels that can take 130-ton bites of rock and dirt.

Oversized dump trucks haul away what's taken from the mountains. Bulldozers are visible on the steep, triangular, terraced faces of newly buried valleys. Rock-lined chutes stretch downward to replace streams and funnel the water away.

Mountaintop removal has been at the center of continuing legal fights.

In 1999, the late U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II in Charleston ruled that dumping the fill material into West Virginia's streams violated the federal Clean Water Act. But that decision was overturned in April 2001 by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

In May 2002, in a different suit, Haden ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cease issuing permits for valley fills. He ruled that the waste rock and dirt from mining did not fit the definition of fill material allowed under Corps permits.

That decision was appealed by the Bush administration and the coal industry. It was overturned by the appeals court in January 2003.

Last July 8, U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin in Charleston blocked the Corps of Engineers from using a streamlined permit process for mountain removal. The streamlined process was meant only for projects that would cause minor environmental damage and was inappropriate for mountain removal, he said.

The Bush administration and the coal industry have appealed that decision.

For her part, Gunnoe said she is tired of the constant blasting and the dust from the three mountaintop mines that surround her home. And she's scared of more flooding.

"The opposition is spreading because we're facing mountaintop removal in everyone's back yard," she said. "That's why people are fighting back.


Total 2003 coal production: Nearly 147 million tons.
State rank: No. 2 behind Wyoming with 339 million tons. Ohio was 14th with
22 million tons.
Underground mines: Produced 92,211,224 tons.
Surface mines: Produced 53,688,375 tons, including more than 38 million tons
from mountaintop mining.
Number of coal companies: 342.
Number of mines: 513; underground, 300, and surface, 213.
Number of coal miners: just under 15,000.
Source: West Virginia Coal Association

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