MAC: Mines and Communities

I went to the mountain top - and they're still mining coal

Published by MAC on 2009-05-05

"Mountaintop removal" has been broadly condemned by US environment groups as an unacceptably destructive way of mining coal. But the practice is far from dead. The Obama administration is divided on whether to prohibit it altogether - rather than only impose better protection for rivers and streams.

And the industry, led by Massey Energy, continues arguing that it's bringing jobs and energy to a beleaguered America, as well as "rehabilitating" its ruined land scapes.

So why worry?

For previous article on Massey, see:

For previous article on injunction against mountaintop removal, see:

Interior Will Ask Court to Remand Rule On Rock Waste From Surface Coal Mines

Emvironment Reporter

1st May 2009

The Interior Department will seek to replace a Bush administration "stream buffer zone rule" with a revised regulation that would better protect streams from surface coal mining, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced April 27.

Interior and the Department of Justice agree that there are "legal deficiencies with the rule" that justify a plan to ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to remand the rule to Interior, Salazar said.

The Bush administration rule is "bad public policy" that reversed "the commonsense 1983 Reagan-era rule that was designed to protect water quality and quantity," the secretary said. He referred to the decision as "cleaning up a major misstep from the previous administration."
Mountaintop mining is the primary form of surface mining at issue. Interior's plan to revise the rule will not reduce the volume of mountaintop mining because all states but Tennessee have continued to enforce the 1983 rule, Salazar said. "So there will not be, in my view, an impact on existing coal mining operations acting under the 1983 rule," he said.

In addition, there has been very little time for mining companies to consider a rule that was only published Dec. 12 and in effect since Jan. 12.

Lawsuits Target Bush Rule.

The contested rule governs the dumping of excess rock or "spoil" into streams or within 100 feet of streams. Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued the rule Dec. 12 after five years of discussion and revisions (73 Fed. Reg. 75,814; 39 ER 2504, 12/19/08).

The rule is the target of two lawsuits, both in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia: National Parks Conservation Ass'n v. Salazar, D.D.C., No. 09-115, and Coal River Mountain Watch v. Salazar, D.D.C, No. 08-2212.

The Interior decision to request a remand is "great news," said Bart Melton, a program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association. His group argued, among other things, that the Bush administration rule failed take adequate account of the rule's impact on endangered species, a point that may be offered by Interior as one reason for a remand, he suggested.
Looking for Improvements.

Salazar said the Interior Department will reconsider the rule on the basis of the 1983 version and will solicit public comments. The rule was issued under the authority of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977.

Many environmentalists want to end mountaintop mining entirely, but SMCRA was written to regulate, not eliminate, surface mining. That has caused environmentalists to look with hope--and mining companies to look with concern--to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency for barriers to mountaintop mining. EPA currently is reviewing 150 to 200 permits for mountaintop mining (40 ER 874, 4/17/09).

"Restoring the previous stream buffer zone regulation is one component in the fight to end mountaintop removal coal mining," said Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club in a prepared statement. "But with the explosives and bulldozers standing by, it will take tough enforcement and more rule changes and legislation to end mountaintop removal coal mining completely."

Restrictions also can work to the benefit of some companies by constraining the coal supply of competitors and contributing to higher prices for the commodity. In its Feb. 3 earnings report, Massey Energy Co. cited "regulatory requirements and enforcement activity" among the factors that the company believes "will contribute to a supply/demand balance that is favorable to Central Appalachian coal producers in the longer term."

By Alan Kovski

The Dec. 12 final rule on stream buffer zone, including information on the 1983 rule, is available at

US Administration mountaintop U-turn

Mining Journal

1st May 2009

AFTER its first 100 days in office, the Obama administration is ringing the changes environmentally, including initiating moves to reverse a rule by the former administration that allows mountaintop coal mines to dump waste into streams if found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option.

"The so-called ‘stream buffer zone rule' simply doesn't pass muster with respect to adequately protecting water quality and stream habitat(s)," Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, said this week.

He added the government would seek for the rule to be overturned by US courts, and for a return to pre-existing regulations.

But environmental law firm Earthjustice said the administration was still not doing enough to guard the environment.
"Unless this announcement is accompanied by a firm commitment to enforce the law as it applies to mountaintop removal and valley fills, it's meaningless," Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, commented.

The practice of mountaintop mining has come under scrutiny recently when the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about its impact.

Mountaintop Mining: The Good, Bad & Ugly

By Chuck Holton

CBN News Reporter

23rd April 2009

APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, W. Va. -- The United States is known as the Saudi Arabia of coal, with over 50 percent of our electricity generated by this abundant natural resource.
Coal also generates tremendous controversy. Much of the debate centers not on pollution, but getting the coal out of the ground.

It's springtime in the Appalachian Mountains, and with the temperatures warming up and the leaves on the trees, it's easy to see why this state's motto is "Almost Heaven."

But beauty won't put food on the table for the mountaineers who call this area home - that takes jobs, and around here, that means mining coal.

Coal mining has a rich history in the Appalachia that continues to this day -- providing more than 70,000 direct, higher paying jobs in West Virginia.

Today, those jobs face an uncertain future. Enviromental groups are lobbying the Obama administration to crack down on some of the practices essential to getting the coal out of the ground. one of the main targets is the practice of mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop Removal Rarely Practiced Now

Jimmy Cook is with Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal company in the U.S. He points out that mountaintop removal is rarely practiced anymore.

"Basically one of the things the public doesn't know is that mountaintop mining basically doesn't exist now," Cook explained. "All these permits are what we call AOC permits - Approximate Original Contour. Which means when we mine out here, we have to put the mountain back within 50 feet."

His miners scrape away the soil to get at seams of coal underneath. But once that's done, the mountain must be painstakingly rebuilt, then re-seeded with grass and trees. But sometimes, land owners have other plans.

"Whether it's a flume, a ditch or a pond, when you go back to the landowner and say 'I'll put this back the way it was,' and they'll tell you, 'no, I want that road there, I want that pond, because me and my grandkids go fishing in that pond now,'" he said.

"Nine times out of ten, they want you to leave it there, because at the end of the day it's left better than it was to start with." Cook continued.

But that's not the only opinion. Long time resident Judy Bonds helps oversee Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization that opposes mountaintop removal.

"They're creating moonscapes out of mountains that were once productive," she said. "And how blasphemous to say we can do a better job than God."

"Below mountaintop removal sites, there are discharges that deform fish, and basically we're looking at science as well as common sense," she continued. "We've never had any problem with our drinking water. "

Elementary School Located Next to Controversial Coal Mine

Children attend Marsh Fork Elementary, located right next to a controversial coal mine.
"My husband working in the coal mines allows me to stay at home taking care of my children," said Mrs. Skaggs.

"West Virginia provides fifty percent of the nation's electricity, and the people that are against coal mining, I think they should turn their lights off, move somewhere else."

But some environmentalists are doing just the opposite - moving into the area to protest the mines. That includes Mike Roselle, who came here from Montana to start Climate Ground Zero.

"I think if you look in North America, this is really one of the most egregious ways that we get our coal," he said. "And it comes at a very very high price, not only because we lose the mountains and our forests, but they bury the streams and they are producing a lot of toxic waste."

His group's protests take a strong activist approach including trespassing on mine property and civil disobedience.

"We've had five protests over the last six weeks where we have entered the blasting area where Massey is blowing up the rocks," Roselle said. "So we've been trying to physically block them from doing that."

These kinds of protests are drawing criticism from the coal companies and residents alike, who point out that Roselle helped found an organization that led to the Earth Liberation Front, labeled by the FBI as one of America's most active and destructive domestic terrorist groups.

To some, one man's environmental crusader is another man's eco-terrorist. But to the people here the bigger issue what effect this dispute will have on jobs in the region.

"If valley fills are being targeted, then that could have a serious detrimental impact to all types of coal mining," said West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection's Randy Huffman.

"In west Virginia, quite frankly, with our terrain, if we're going to have a future economy after coal, we need to be able to use the coal mining practices that are taking place today in order to create developable land...and in order to create flat land, you need valley fills," he explained.

Strip Mined in the 1980's, But The Land Recovered

One mountain top was strip mined in the 1980's, and back then, there were far fewer regulations as to the kind of reclamation that had to be done once the coal had been extracted. And yet the land has recovered remarkably well, and the farmers who grow hay and cattle on this mountain are pretty happy with how it turned out.

Dave Hutchison farms this mountain.

"The environmentalists get all bent out of shape saying they're burying our streams," Hutchinson said. "Well, I'm not the smartest fella, but even I know you can't stop water - and when they reclaimed this mountain, it actually improved the quality of the runoff because they put in these ponds and controlled the drainage."

"I love this area, and don't ever want to live nowhere else," he continued.

That is one thing almost everyone here agrees on.

"I would like to think that we have a future, and when I see what's going on right now I'm really concerned that we don't have a future," Roselle said.

"We have about 240 employees," Cook explained. "Every one of these guys live right here. They love this land. They'll tell you, they love the land, they love to hunt and fish, and they know what we do to be stewards of the land, to take care of it and do the right thing."

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