MAC: Mines and Communities

Scientists decry impacts of mountaintop coal mining

Published by MAC on 2010-01-19
Source: Washington Post, Huffington Post, ENS

But US government doesn't grasp the nettle

During the past few years battle lines, drawn around "mountaintop removal" by coal mining companies, have moved from the eastern states of the US - right to Washington DC.

As the Federal Government continues pussy-footing over the issue, and a permit is issued for another mine, a group of US scientists has come out unequivocally against the practice.

Scientists decry impacts of mountaintop coal mining

By David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

7 January 2010

Mountaintop coal mining -- in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off and stream valleys buried under tons of rubble -- is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits to do it, a group of scientists said in a paper released Thursday.

The group, headed by a University of Maryland researcher, did one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the controversial practice, also known as "mountaintop removal."

Afterward, they did something that scientists usually don't: step beyond data-gathering to take a political stand.

"Until somebody can show that the water [that runs off mine sites] can be cleaned up ... this has got to be stopped," said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and the study's lead author.

For now, Palmer said, "there is no evidence that things like this can be fixed."

The group's paper, published in the journal Science, was released in the same week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- which has been closely scrutinizing these mines -- angered environmentalists by supporting a new mine permit. The EPA said the Hobet 45 mine, in West Virginia, had made changes that would eliminate nearly 50 percent of the environmental impacts, and protect 460 union mining jobs.

Palmer, in a telephone interview, said the group's work did not echo the idea implicit in this EPA decision, that there could be a "good" mountaintop mine, whose environmental consequences were acceptable.

"The science is clearly against that," she said.

Mountaintop mining occurs mainly in West Virginia and Kentucky, though there also are mines in far-Southwest Virginia and in Tennessee. The industry has said these sites are key to the economy of a coal-dependent region, because they allow miners to get at coal seams that are too thin, or too close to the surface, to be reached by tunneling.

Instead, mountains are literally moved to get at the coal.

Their tops are sheared off with heavy machinery and explosives, exposing the coal inside. At some mines, the mountain is rebuilt with rubble after the mining is finished; at others, it is left flat. At most sites, there is still excess rock and dirt, which is typically used in "valley fills," burying a stream valley to its brim.

In Thursday's report, scientists found was that environmental damage extends far beyond the boundaries of the mine. They said that when rainwater falls on a filled valley it filters not through the usual tree roots and topsoil, but through a jumbled mass of rocks from far below the surface.

It emerges, the scientists found, imbued with pollutants it should not have: traces of metals and chemicals called sulfates, which can be toxic to the insects and fish that live in small Appalachian streams. They found no instances in which streams running off mined sites have recovered their old biodiversity -- a blow to the coal industry's contention that these sites, when left alone, will become vibrant again.

"To us, it's like smoking and cancer. It's just so clear-cut" that streams below mine sites are left damaged, Palmer said. She said the study indicated that water quality and life in streams began to suffer when 5 to 10 percent of a watershed was affected by mining. Several watersheds in West Virginia already exceed that number, Palmer said.

The study also found evidence of effects on human health, including water wells contaminated with chemicals from mines and elevated levels of hazardous dust in the air.

Scientists call for end to mountaintop removal

By VICKI SMITH, The Associated Press

8 January 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A group of scientists called on the federal government Thursday to stop mountaintop removal mining, arguing dozens of existing studies on the practice prove its ecological impacts are "pervasive and irreversible."

In a Policy Forum opinion piece for Friday's issue of the journal Science, 12 researchers from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia argue the effects are clear, and federal regulators must stop ignoring what they call "rigorous science."

In a teleconference Thursday, lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland acknowledged it is unusual for scientists to offer a political position on their research but said her colleagues "all agree the evidence is overwhelming."

The National Mining Association, however, said some of the scientists have testified as expert witnesses for environmental groups and have what she considers "a long-standing feud" with the industry.

Palmer acknowledged she and two other scientists have testified in mining cases but said the team's time was donated, and its work was not funded by any organization.

NMA spokeswoman Carol Raulston also argues the scientists chose data selectively, ignoring water-quality information that didn't support its theories. While they're entitled to their opinion, she said, "they're incorrect in saying this review of the literature points to any new conclusions."

The scientists say mountaintop mining destroys forests and streams that can never be replaced, threatening both aquatic life and human health. Palmer also argues there is no evidence to suggest current reclamation methods are effective.

The scientists argue some of the oldest, most diverse forests in North America have been destroyed, along with 1,500 miles of Appalachian headwater streams.

The loss of trees and topsoil and the compaction of the earth by heavy equipment worsen historic problems with flooding, they argue, while runoff tainted with selenium is causing deformities in fish and could ultimately threaten human health.

The article is based on nearly three dozen studies that Duke University researcher Emily Bernhardt said federal regulators should view collectively. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers should adopt a holistic approach, she said, rather than regulating individual contaminants.

The NMA says the scientists are trying to hold the industry to an unrealistic standard when it comes to reclamation.

"They in effect say the only legitimate standard is that once mining ceases, things have to be as they were before mining occurred," Raulston said. "Neither we nor the road building industry nor the construction industry nor anyone else could be held to that standard."

Jobs Trump Streams as Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine Permitted

Environment News Service (ENS)

6 January 2009

WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today issued a Clean Water Act permit for Patriot Coal Corporation's Hobet 45 mountaintop removal coal mine in Lincoln County, southern West Virginia.

The permit comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it supports a permit for the company following discussions that resulted in "additional significant protections against environmental impacts."

In mountaintop mining operations, entire coal seams are removed from the tops of mountains by blasting away the rocks above the coal and dumping the waste rock into neighboring valleys, often burying streams.

As originally proposed, the Hobet 45 mining extension would have buried nearly six miles of headwater streams and contaminated downstream waters that now support healthy streamlife and are used by local residents for fishing and swimming.

EPA recommended changes to the mine plan in consultation with Hobet Mining and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will:

* Reduce stream impacts by more than 16,000 linear feet, roughly three miles
* Require that contaminated mine drainage be directed away from surface waters
* Ensure more effective compensation for environmental losses
* Establish an adaptive management plan to further protect water quality
* Protect highly productive streams on the mine site

"We are pleased that we can now begin work in the permitted area. Production at the Hobet mine is very important to Patriot, our employees and the surrounding community," Patriot CEO Richard Whiting said today.

"We appreciate the work done by the EPA and the Corps to achieve this result. We would also like to acknowledge the efforts of Congressman Nick J. Rahall, Governor Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Congressional delegation and our locally elected representatives in support of a constructive dialogue with the EPA and the Corps that led to the issuance of this permit," Whiting said.

The Hobet 45 mountaintop removal coal mine (Photo courtesy I Love Mountains)

The Hobet 45 mine is one of 79 projects identified by the EPA as raising environmental concerns under a special enhanced coordination process with the Corps to make decisions on a large group of permits that were delayed for several years because of litigation.

The EPA approved issuance of a Clean Water Act permit while recognizing that, "Appalachian coal mining has buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams in states including West Virginia."

"Scientific studies have increasingly identified significant water quality problems below surface coal mining operations that can contaminate surface waters for hundreds of years," the EPA said, announcing the Hobet 45 mine decision. "Data from coalfield communities also indicate that coal mining is responsible for causing fish kills and contaminating fish and wildlife."

Environmental and citizens groups across Appalachia and across the country were dismayed by the decision.

"We, the affected citizens that are living with the impacts of this destructive mining practice, pray that this decision is not a preview of other destructive mining permits being approved," said Judy Bonds with Coal River Mountain Watch. "We certainly hope this is the last destructive permit approved that will allow the coal industry to continue to blast our homes and pollute our streams."

"The Obama administration rings in the new year by allowing coal companies to bury more miles of streams," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm.

"There is no excuse for approving this permit when the science is clear that mountaintop removal coal mining permanently destroys streams," said Mulhern. "The administration claims to be making progress on mountaintop removal, but in reality they are still following the flawed policies put in place by the Bush administration. It is time for them to make a commitment to ending this abominable practice."

The groups say this decision highlights the urgent need for the U.S. EPA to protect streams from mining waste by revising Clean Water Act regulations gutted by the Bush administration.

The Sierra Club and other national and local environmental groups encourage the Obama Administration to begin a rulemaking to exclude mining waste from the definition of 'fill' as a material that can be dumped in waters of the United States. The groups say entire communities have been permanently displaced by mines the size of Manhattan.

The EPA said Tuesday that the agency "has committed to use its Clean Water Act regulatory authorities to reduce environmental and water quality impacts associated with surface coal mining."

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia said, "I commend Patriot Coal and the Environmental Protection Agency for their determination to come to the table and work together to resolve this issue. By choosing cooperation over confrontation, Patriot and the EPA are creating a template for how coal operators and regulators can work together to protect mining jobs while also abiding by federal laws that protect the land, water, and people from negative environmental impacts."

But Bill Price, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in West Virginia, is not persuaded. "While we understand that this short term deal means more mining and destruction but also the extension of employment to mine workers, we know that mountaintop removal coal mining is not a long-term economic strategy for Appalachia," he said.

"There is an achievable balance between environmental concerns and the necessary mining of coal as part of our energy portfolio. Striving for that balance, without rancor, must be our goal," said Byrd.

Byrd also announced that next week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection will begin hosting regular meetings with any interested coal companies in order to clarify the technical details and requirements associated with the processing of permit applications. The first meeting is slated for Tuesday, January 12, at the Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia.

JPMorgan Chase Profits from Destruction in Appalachia

The Huffington Post

8 January 2010

Remember the bank bailouts? The billions of tax dollars that went to those behemoth institutions? Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said recently that his investment bank may have had its "finest year ever." What he didn't highlight was that JPMorgan Chase's success is based, in part, on being the largest underwriter of coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal coal mining.

JPMorgan Chase has been funding six of the top eight coal mining companies responsible for mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States. Recently, its investment bank underwrote more than $1 billion in new financing to Massey Energy, the largest mountaintop removal coal mining company.

JPMorgan Chase states that its "environmental goal is to make a positive contribution to sustainable business practices by integrating environmental practices into our business model." Yet, Massey Energy has a deplorable environmental record, having violated the Clean Water Act no fewer than 4,500 times - resulting in a $30 million fine in 2008.

Employed throughout Appalachia -- especially in West Virginia and Kentucky, but also in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia -- mountaintop removal mining is an especially destructive method of extracting coal that has had far-reaching environmental and societal effects. Targeted areas of trees are cleared -- a process that itself has led to the leveling of over one million acres of hardwood forest between 1992 and 2002 -- and then mountaintops are blasted apart in order to expose underlying coal seams for extraction.

In the past two decades alone, mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed roughly 470 mountains in the region. The debris from these blasts is dumped into surrounding valleys, destroying what were once serene and lush hollows. Or it's dumped into local rivers and streams, literally burying 1,200 miles of waterways.

Twelve hundred miles of waterways! Buried!

The toxins and heavy metals from this debris flow freely into the drinking water of those who live there.

Communities are decimated, as poverty has driven families out, leaving ghost towns where there used to be thriving homes, schools and businesses. Many who refuse to leave, because their families have been there for generations -- or who are stuck in the vicious cycle of accepting very little, because they've been left with nothing - lead lives that are filled with high rates of cancer, asthma and other life-threatening illnesses. And they are witness to friends and loved ones who succumb to premature death.

It's a living nightmare. And I've seen it firsthand.

I've seen a lunar landscape, where there used to be glorious and majestic mountains.

I've seen a two-billion-gallon, unlined, coal slurry pond, filled to the brim. Who knows how much arsenic, selenium, lead, and mercury, have seeped into the groundwater from that one "pond" alone?

I've spoken with people in a community who are hanging on by a thread, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They feel as though they are the forgotten ones. They can't understand how this can be happening in this country. Their eyes reflect countless years of hardship and loss of hope.

Fortunately, opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining is gaining momentum. Aware of the ethical issues involved in aiding such irresponsible business practices, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have ended their client relationships with Massey Energy. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency halted 79 permits for further environmental review. In October, USA Today, citing the destruction of areas "roughly the size of Delaware," called for the Obama Administration to "block the worst of them and change regulations to make the permitting process much stricter."

Other prominent newspapers have recently called for the practice to end, including newspapers in the Appalachian region:

* In June, the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote: "Mountaintop removal is a violent attack on the Appalachian landscape... The Appalachian mountain chains are one of our region's, and indeed our country's, greatest resources. Mr. Obama should make clear that he won't stand for their continued destruction."

* In August, the Chattanooga Times Free Press wrote: "Among the most destructive environmental abuses in this nation, the most deliberate, unconscionable and widespread has to be the form of coal-mining known as 'mountain-top removal' mining. Indeed, 'mining' is hardly the word for this premeditated, callously calculated, man-made catastrophe. ... It should be banned as soon as possible."

In October, even The Economist weighed in from London, saying the following about the use of mountaintop removal mining to extract carbon-emitting coal: "... the underlying question is why America allows this practice at all ... When a coal company blows the top off a mountain in West Virginia, it's destroying the environment in order to destroy the environment."

It's time for JPMorgan Chase to get the message. It's time for them to stop funding this monstrous behavior.

Gloria Reuben is an actress nominated for multiple Emmy Awards, is Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of Waterkeeper Alliance, the global environmental organization (

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