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Trouble in Coal Country
Comments () | Published September 1, 2008

Raney says people don’t understand that coal companies spend months doing geological testing and collecting water data before they mine mountaintops. The problem, he explains, is that environmental groups often publish photographs of active construction sites, instead of reclaimed mountaintops, to draw on people’s emotions.

“What you have to do,” he says, “is look through the operation and say, ‘What is that site going to look like when they finish?’ ”

Raney says that every mining site is reclaimed—a process that starts immediately after coal removal. Some are reforested or revegetated; others become development opportunities—schools, housing, shopping centers—in turn creating jobs.

Some residents want the mountains they’ve always known. And activists such as Gunnoe argue that coal companies can never truly restore the land they’ve mined. Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world; the temperate hardwood forest is filled with reptiles, birds, and aquatic insects. According to Ilovemountains.org—a Web site maintained by seven grassroots organizations including Coal River Mountain Watch—when mountains are reclaimed, most sites receive “little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed.”

Raney sees it differently: “It’s somewhere between 1 and 1½ percent of the land mass of West Virginia that’s been disturbed by mining, and all that land is reclaimed. We have more forest land today than we did 20 years ago. We’re getting so much better at reforestation—we’re doing it with a variety of species.”

Raney admits that there are times coal companies make mistakes. He says those are fixed quickly: “The ultimate intent is that when you’re finished mining, you will probably not know it’s been mined—and the water quality will be every bit as good as before.”

Coal companies require a permit authorization from the US Army Corps of Engineers before they can discharge dredge or fill material into US waters. Until 2003, the corps routinely used “nationwide 21” permits, developed by corps headquarters, which are distributed when a proposed project is expected to have a minimal impact on the environment. Now most surface-mining operations require individual permits; some smaller projects, with less of an environmental effect, still receive nationwide 21 permits.

Jim Hecker, an attorney with DC-based Public Justice, was shocked when he saw what was happening with the permitting process in West Virginia in the late 1990s: “They were claiming that these huge mountaintop mines—which cumulatively covered 50 or so square miles, destroyed thousands of acres of forests and hundreds of miles of streams—had no significant impact, which was ridiculous.”

Hecker and a young lawyer in West Virginia, Joe Lovett, began challenging the permitting process in US District Court—a legal fight detailed in Michael Shnayerson’s Coal River—charging that dumping mining waste into streams was a violation of the Clean Water Act. The lawyers said companies were given permits to fill valleys without preparing a thorough environmental-impact statement. Hecker remembers a deposition in which a permit supervisor testified that his agency had processed thousands of permits for the industry—and not one surface-mining permit was denied.

Hecker discovered what Maria Gunnoe already knew: It was hard to stop a coal company in West Virginia.

Says Hecker: “Except for former secretary of state Ken Hechler, we have not had a single elected individual in West Virginia support our case in the last decade.”

The courts have handed some victories to Hecker and Lovett. The duo stopped a permit for the largest mine proposed in the state, a 5,000-acre tract that would have filled several miles of streams. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers volunteered to conduct a thorough environmental-impact study of mountaintop mining as part of a settlement agreement in a permit-related lawsuit. The lawyers have made it harder for coal companies to get large-scale mining permits.

But the industry has flexed its muscle in return. Its lawyers don’t have to think twice about an appeal, making it easy to exhaust a nonprofit attorney’s budget. Appeals go to the conservative Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, where many of Hecker and Lovett’s favorable rulings have been reversed. Several judges on the Fourth Circuit have had to recuse themselves because of ties to the coal industry.

Some residents say Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy—the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia—is more powerful than the state’s governor. After rulings unfavorable to the industry a few years ago, Blankenship helped fund a lawyer’s campaign to unseat a judge who’d often ruled against him. Blankenship’s candidate won.

The coal industry gave more than $380,000 to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Before the environmental-impact statement on mountaintop mining was released, Hecker says, the administration tinkered with it.

“There’s a lot of good science in the statement,” says Hecker. “But none of the science worked its way into the recommendations and conclusions. Unfortunately, it was totally corrupted by the Bush administration, who took it over and turned it into a document to streamline permitting rather than one controlling environmental damage.”

Valley fills are a part of mountaintop mining. If you blast apart a mountain, you need a place to put the dirt. Geologist Alan Stagg says that if valley fills are constructed correctly, they’re engineering marvels that filter rainwater into terraces, slowing down its movement.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles