Poor affected most as Environmental Destruction Agency blasts away barrier to expand mountaintop removal mining

“Clean” coal’s dirtiest secret: Part III

This article, third in a series on mountaintop removal coal mining, was originally titled “The poor are always downstream.” It must now be amended to add “when there is still a stream to be down from.”

In an act that puts a grossly ironic twist on its name, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved a repeal of the 25-year-old stream buffer zone rule, which prohibits surface coal mining within 100 feet of a flowing stream. The change, proposed by Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM), was finalized when it received written sanction from EPA on Tuesday.

The controversial move comes amid extensive opposition, one more last-minute effort by the Bush Administration to further erode a host of environmental regulations before its imminent departure.  This one promises disproportionate harm to some of the nation’s poorest citizens, if it’s allowed to stand.

Opponents argued that EPA could not legally approve the rule change because it conflicts with the provisions of the Clean Water Act. Apparently that was of no consequence to administrator Stephen Johnson, who signed off despite the opposition of the governors of Kentucky and Tennessee, whose states will be among those affected.

A pristine stretch of the Coal River.  Photo courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.
A pristine stretch of the Coal River. Photo courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.

EPA’s own scientists have concluded that “dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality,” said Edward C. Hopkins, policy analyst for the Sierra Club. And in some cases, streams will be obliterated altogether as the “overburden” that is blasted away to reveal coal seams is dumped into adjacent valleys, covering up seasonal water flows that comprise many Appalachian headwaters.

The EPA action is the latest in a decades-old history of political oppression that has harmed the people of Appalachia as badly as the land they inhabit. Most of the press since Tuesday’s announcement has focused on the environmental destruction wreaked by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining: the total reshaping of the region’s topography, including the destruction of more than 400 mountaintops comprising 800,000 acres, and 1200 headwater streams thus far. Less attention is paid to the human impacts of this practice, which are equally disturbing.

Mountaintop removal mining takes away jobs

The counties where MTR mining is practiced are the poorest in the nation. Of the 100 counties with the lowest incomes in the U.S., 29 are in Kentucky, where the average household income is about $16,000 a year. Underground coal miners can make $40,000-50,000 a year, but in a region where the economic benefits of coal are constantly touted by the industry and the many politicians in its pocket, MTR is taking those jobs away.

Vivian Stockman via SouthWings
Photo: Vivian Stockman via SouthWings

An MTR operation exposes shallow coal seams with heavy equipment and dynamite using a fraction of the human labor force of conventional underground mining. As MTR has increased, industry jobs have shrunk. About 17,000 people currently work in the central Appalachian coalfields compared to 150,000 in the 1970s and ‘80s, said Chuck Nelson, a West Virginia miner-turned-activist who spoke to a group of journalists that toured two MTR sites in West Virginia during the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in October. Industry figures put the employment figure nearer 20,000, but it’s a far smaller number than it was two or three decades ago, since the advent of MTR.

Mountaintop removal mining has devastating health consequences
Chuck Nelson
Chuck Nelson

While MTR is less expensive for the industry, “it’s not so cheap for the people who have to live around it,” said Nelson.

When 3 million pounds of dynamite are detonated every day in Appalachia, residents of these remote hollows live with constant noise, rattling windows, cracked foundations, and tainted wells. Regulations allow explosions within 300 feet from a house. Flying debris has destroyed structures, and in one case killed a young boy as he lay sleeping when a boulder crashed through his bedroom wall.

Coal dust coats the inside and outside of houses near such operations. The result may be silicosis, rather than black lung disease, but the outcome of such lethal respiratory diseases is the same.

Then there is the cost of cancer. It’s the biggest killer in Appalachia, said Larry Gibson, an activist whose family has lived on Kayford Mountain, W. Va., for 230 years, surrounded now by the bleak devastation of 7500 acres of adjacent peaks that have been blown away. The problem is poisoned water.

Vivian Stockman via SouthWings
Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, not yet filled to its 9 billion gallon capacity. Photo: Vivian Stockman via SouthWings

Up to 60 different chemicals are used in the slurry process that washes the coal once it is separated from the blast debris. The heavy metals that occur naturally in coal, including mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and selenium, leach into the water used in the coal washing process and subsequently can permeate groundwater. The wastewater is either injected into mountainsides, often into abandoned underground mines, or penned up in gigantic, unlined slurry holdings that also contain diesel and fertilizer residue from the explosives.

Though EPA’s latest ruling allows a dramatic expansion of what can be legally dumped, water tainted by toxic sludge is nothing new to many residents of the remote hollows where MTR mining occurs.

Just ask residents of Prenter, W. Va. When they turn on their taps, the water runs black for 250 households in a 10-square-mile area, Nelson said. A YouTube video shows a penny held under a bathroom faucet tarnished in seconds by hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin in the community’s well water. Vegetable gardens die. And the people of Prenter are dying, too. An informal survey of residents showed exceptional rates of gallbladder disease, skin conditions, kidney and liver disease, brain tumors and thyroid cancer. Prenter is three miles from a slurry injection site, yet state and local officials say they can’t do anything because they can’t confirm that coal mining is responsible for the problems.

And Prenter is not alone. In nearby Mingo County, reports Dana Kuhnline of The Dominion, residents near another slurry site also suffer from high rates of rare diseases, where the same chemicals found in coal slurry have been found in well water at rates thousands of times the legal limit.

Mountaintop removal mining threatens to annihilate communities

While polluted water is usually a problem emanating from below, there is also the risk of a slurry dam break, threatening to inundate whole communities and their natural environs with billions of gallons of thick chemical soup.

Benji Burrill, via SouthWings
Photo: Benji Burrill, via SouthWings

Marsh Fork Elementary sits at the base of one of those impoundments. Just 400 yards away, 2.8 billion gallons of opaque black slurry is contained behind an earthen dam directly above the school. Years of efforts by local residents to get the state of West Virginia to relocate the school have been fruitless.

Thirty minutes from Gibson’s home on Kayford Mountain, the biggest slurry impoundment in the nation, Brushy Fork, is designed to hold a staggering 9 billion gallons of sludge. The ‘lake’ surface is the size of a football field, and the dam wall, constructed of rubble left over from blasting, is permitted at more than 900 feet. The impoundment happens to be built on top of a maze of underground mine shafts, with blasting occurring nearby.

Vivian Stockman, via SouthWings
Coal slurry “lake” at Brushy Fork. Photo: Vivian Stockman, via SouthWings

Despite assurances by industry that such impoundments are secure, evidence exists to the contrary. A slurry dam collapsed at Buffalo Creek, W. Va., in 1972, sending 132 million gallons of liquid waste in a 20- to 30-foot torrent that killed 125 people and left 4000 homeless. More recently, 306 million gallons of toxic coal sludge was released near Inez, Kentucky, on Oct. 11, 2000, when a rupture occurred in the bottom of a holding impoundment owned by a subsidiary of Massey Energy. The sludge leaked into an underground mine, then burst out two portals into two creeks, eventually oozing 100 miles downstream to devastate the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers. Community water supplies were closed, aquatic life eradicated, and yards and gardens buried beneath feet of sticky, chemical-laden goo.

Coal sludge spill on Kentucky's Big Sandy River, October 2000.  Photo courtesy of West Virginia Blue.
Coal sludge spill on Kentucky’s Big Sandy River, October 2000. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Blue.

The EPA called it the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi. It was the nation’s worst-ever blackwater spill, 30 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, though few Americans outside the region knew about it. That’s not surprising, given the Bush Administration’s efforts to cover it up.

Structural conditions are similar at Brushy Fork, a much larger impoundment, which has been chronically cited for permit violations by the WV Department of Environmental Protection. The United Mine Workers has issued a dire warning for miners and coalfields residents, and Marfork Coal Company’s own emergency plan
predicts that 990 people could die if the impoundment were to be breached.

Mountaintop removal mining destroys culture
Traditional mountain folk music flourishes in Appalachia
Traditional mountain folk music flourishes in Appalachia

A bumper sticker on a pick-up truck parked at Larry Gibson’s camp on Kayford Mountain read “Save the Endangered Hillbilly.”  While “hillbilly” has negative connotations for many Americans, the culture of Appalachia’s “mountaineers,” as locals call themselves, is among the most unique in the United States. Many here have lived off the land for generations, Nelson said, harvesting nuts, gathering medicinal herbs, hunting and fishing. Some of the country’s richest musical traditions hail from deep within these mountains, home to the Carter Family. bluegrass legends like Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and contemporary country singer Kathy Mattea, whose latest album, Coal, is a tribute to miners and a call to end the destruction of mountaintop removal.

But the term “hillbilly,” synonymous in many minds with poverty and ignorance, hints at why the long-demeaned people of Appalachia have been impotent to stop mountaintop removal mining and its devastating effects on their communities and traditions.

Gibson calls residents of the coalfield hollers the “forgotten people of Appalachia,” whom politicians do not need to court for votes. Theresa Burriss, professor of Appalachian studies at Radford University, says Appalachia is an “internally colonized region,” where residents are constructed as the exotic other, a stereotype journalists often can’t see beyond. When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell visited Bristol, Virginia, during the fall election season, she referred to it as “redneck Nascar country,” a crude offense to the region’s mountain people, said Burriss.

The fact is, most residents of Appalachia are poor. Many lack the education taken for granted in other parts of the country. Those factors conspire to limit political power, but they do not squelch political will. In the past several years, a hodge-podge of grassroots groups opposed to MTR have come together to create an activist coalition growing in size and influence. Central to its efforts are citizens like Judy Bonds, daughter of an underground coal miner and an 8th generation resident of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. Bonds, a former waitress and convenience store clerk, has become a vocal community leader as head of Coal River Mountain Watch.

“My daddy was a mountaineer before he was a coal miner,” said Bonds, who speaks reverently of her family’s natural heritage. Appalachia is an Indian word, Bonds said, for “endless mountain forest – but not anymore.” In 2001, Bonds and her family were the last residents to evacuate from Marfork Hollow, which was virtually destroyed by MTR mining by that point. Like many children in the coalfields, Bonds’ grandson was suffering from asthma, induced by the dust and polluted air. The catalyst for her activism, she said, was the day her grandson stood in a stream in Coal River Valley with his fists full of dead fish and asked, “What’s wrong with these fish?”

Bonds told SEJ members of other atrocities she has witnessed, including the deliberate killing of a mother black bear when a worker waited to detonate a charge till she walked atop it. She relayed another story of a “mama bear bawling when her babies were covered up by dumping” rubble.

The ruination of the forests, wildlife, and the ancestral home of her people has turned Bonds into a crusader. As for the promised economic benefits of MTR mining for her community? “I can’t find that prosperity anywhere,” she said. “We have the worst health in the country.”

Bob Dickerson, Pritchard Mining employee, on the left
Bob Dickerson, on the left

Not all coalfield residents think MTR is egregious, however. Some, like Bob Dickerson, who works for Pritchard Mining, thinks there are some benefits to leveling the summits. Flat land, which doesn’t exist naturally in southern West Virginia, is valued for building schools, airstrips and shopping centers. While it is unfortunate, he acknowledges, that some people have to leave the hollers, it has its upside, too: “It’s a lot more convenient to go to Wal-Mart…It’s progress.”

“Some people are more set in their ways. The coal has provided for them for their whole lives, but now when it can provide for others’ lives, they don’t want to go.”

Dickerson believes the challenges of living in the coalfields go with the territory. “There’s always been the trucks, the dust, the poverty…You hate it for the ones that are displaced, but it’s always been a fact of life in the coal industry.”

He himself has gotten over it. Now 48, he left his home in Cabin Creek half a lifetime ago, when he was 24. “I enjoy being out of the holler now,” he said, though he still returns to visit the family cemeteries on Memorial Day.

“I’m proud of what I do. I provide energy,” Dickerson said.

Some telling statistics

The U.S. gets about 50 percent of its total energy from coal. West Virginia produces about 15 percent of that total. Coal mining jobs, both direct and indirect, make up about 5 percent of the labor force of West Virginia. Seventy percent of mining jobs in West Virginia are underground, with the remaining 30 percent in surface mining, including mountaintop removal and long wall mining.

It’s evident that MTR mining provides an insignificant portion of the total U.S. coal production. Given its massive environmental and human impacts, any person with a conscience should argue that there are other ways to produce the energy it provides.

The next – and final – installment in this series will provide a list of actions readers can take to help end mountaintop removal coal mining.

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13 replies »

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  2. Regarding the blackwater spill near Inez, KY: October 11, 2000 was before Bush was even elected, much less in office to cover it up. Certainly it was horrible. I saw it as my railroad’s main line follows the Big Sandy River. Massey coal company is notorious for its arrogance and was unrepentant in this instance. But no matter what Bush has done, you can’t blame him for this.

  3. Follow the “cover it up” link in the article, Coaltraindriver. The Bush administration can and should be blamed for this and every other disaster under the Bush watch!

  4. Thanks, Wendy.

    I do think that if we want to change MTR, the focus will have to be on the people rather than the environment. We Americans have shown ourselves more than willing to ignore our effect on the environment if changing that effect would mean any change in our lifestyles.

    These people might still be written off as hillbillies with as much value as black bears to the average suburban resident, but it will – at least – be more difficult to write off people than bears.

  5. Relying on coal is causing global warming. We need to listen to T Boone Pickens, and switch over to natural gas until wind and solar technologies become $ viable. But first we have to rid the government of bush cronies and wall street lapdogs. Time to drag those repugacan foxes out of the EPA henhouse. They have had free rein for 8 years. Look around. They have destroyed this country. Fire every rightwing idealogue from the government. From dog catcher on up. Return this government to the people, not Peabody Coal and Wall Street.

  6. BubbaRick, natural gas is only a short-term solution, I’m afraid. Gas produces carbon dioxide too, although it’s only half of what coal produces. All gas really gives us is a little more time than we’d have with coal, We’ll have a hard enough time keeping up with new electricity demand with gas, never mind decommissioning existing coal plants and replacing them with gas.

    Gas is better to be sure, but it’s not the panacea Pickens claims. And people have been writing about the water and air pollution associated with oil and gas drilling for even longer than they have mountaintop removal mining.

  7. Read my lips: “There is no such thing a clean coal.” Coal is filthy and destructive when you mine it. It’s filthy and destructive when you process it. And it’s filthy and destructive when you burn it. Anything you do to “clean it up” will only make it expensive.

  8. Brian,

    I believe Pickens plan is pretty upfront about the fact that natural gas is a bridge to the next solution. From what I understand he is really pushing Natural gas, not so much for electricity, but to power big rig trucks and heavy machinery.

    He’s more of a wind and solar guy in terms of electricity. One thing thatis certain: Every solution breeds a new a probem. Yet we must continue to search for the new solution.

  9. Just want to congratulate the author for this eye-opening series and, on behalf of the whole country, to thank her.

  10. Thanks to all of you who have read this piece (and the others) and taken time to comment, and especially to Russ for your generous words. I will have the final installment up sometime tomorrow, with some specific, simple ways that concerned citizens can take further steps to help stop the destruction of land and lives that MTR mining perpetuates.