MAC: Mines and Communities

Environmentalists, Coal Industry Battle Over Mountaintop Mining

Published by MAC on 2005-07-10
Source: Knight Ridder Newspapers

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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