“Every time you turn on a light switch, BOOM, you’re blowing up someone’s back yard.” I was introduced to Ed Wiley, the extraordinary man just quoted, by Kathy Mattea backstage at the Mountain Aid Benefit Concert. She came out to Shakori Hills on her fiftieth birthday to help Ed raise money for his granddaughter and all the children of Marsh Fork Elementary School who are victims of mountain top removal coal mining. Just three hundred feet behind this school, there is a 1,849 acre mountain top removal sight with an unstable slate dam holding 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste from the coal cleaning process. The community’s water supply is already contaminated, and the children of Marsh Fork Elementary have been going home sick on a regular basis for months.
Samples taken from the coal mining sight are reported to have tested among the highest in the nation for lead poisoning, not to mention extremely high in quantities of mercury and other toxins. You might flip another switch in your home and think, “This is not my problem,” but if you live most anywhere on the east coast, you are mistaken. In a report by the EPA, more than 1,200 miles of streams have been buried or polluted by this practice between 1985 and 2001, streams that are the headwaters for much of the east coast’s drinking water supplies. Surviving streams are now potentially carrying cancer causing toxins to millions of US citizens.
Mountain top removal coal mining practices began in the 1970’s in Appalachia as an extension of strip mining. The EPA’s definition of the practice says, “the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal,” which involves blasting away the summit to get at the buried seams and dumping the earth in the neighboring valleys. The components of this process, blasting, digging, waste removal, coal cleaning, and processing, have all been reported to our government officials numerous times via Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) drafts for the EPA as having “devastating impacts on the environment,” including the contamination of streams and drinking water supplies.
The blasting, which is allowed to take place within three hundred feet of homes, often goes on twenty four hours a day, using millions of tons of dynamite to splinter the rock strata, literally blowing off the tops of the mountains. This is only after the trees and vegetation are completely cleared, and often dumped illegally, along with the tons of earth and rock, into the valleys without even using the wood commercially. Not only is this practice leveling some of the most biodiverse forests in our nation, but the fill sights are covering up the valley streams and forests, and the blasting is cracking homes, buildings, and foundations, and drying up well waters all over the surrounding areas.
But, that is just the tip of the mountain. After the blasting, the coal is dug from the earth using large, extremely expensive machines called draglines, which at $100 million dollars a piece, are apparently still cost effective for the mining companies because they can pull the coal from deep in the earth with just a few operators, while at the same time displacing the need for hundreds of jobs. The waste from all of this, which is called “overburden,” or “spoil,” is also dumped into the valley fills. One might think this is necessary to get what’s been recently catch-phrased as “clean coal” for cleaner energy. Well, one thing is certain, coal has to be cleaned and the process and its waste are both deadly to humans. The mining and burning of coal has never been clean, and this term is misunderstood and misleading to the American public.
The “cleaning” of coal before it is sent out for use leaves behind a mixture of water, coal dust, clay, and toxic chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. This sludge is held in impoundments, often by unstable and unsafe dams made out of the mining debris. These impoundments are reported to be notoriously leaky and have even failed completely. For evidence of this, look to Kentucky in what the EPA called “the biggest environmental disaster ever east of the Mississippi,” when 300 million gallons of this toxic sludge spilled into the tributaries of the Big Sandy River.
Truly frightening is the knowledge that all of the numbers put forward this decade by the EPA and the EIS drafts are most likely not accurate, and in fact, may be grossly skewed to the benefit of the coal mining industry. Evidence put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and their lawyers, based on documents obtained through the freedom of information act, showed the Bush Administration openly favoring the mining industry.
A 2004 report by the UCS stated that “J. Stephen Griles, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior and a former lobbyist for the National Mining Association, instructed agency scientists and staff to change the focus of the EIS.” A memo from Griles to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and other federal agencies involved in the EIS states that a new draft EIS should “focus on centralizing and streamlining coal-mining permitting.” Griles is reported to have directed agencies to “drop consideration of any options for safer environmental alternatives to current coal mining practices” despite overwhelming scientific evidence of environmental devastation from mountain top removal techniques.
But now, there’s a new administration in office. President Obama has promised to take the Clean Air and Clean Water Protection Act seriously. Although, I could have sworn he was being honest with the American people during his campaign, for the first time, I now find myself wondering. His administration recently reported they are planning to “regulate” this mining process, rather than end it. How can this be, when even probable grossly underestimated reports made during the Bush Administration show the complete destruction of more than 800 square miles of mountains by 2003, equal to a quarter mile wide strip from New York to San Francisco.
Many of our top scientists have repeatedly proven mountaintop removal practices are contaminating, if not entirely drying up, our citizens water supplies. For what? The USGS reports that the practice has only yielded about 5% of our nation’s coal supply, saying the area has already long-ago yielded its peak coal productions. One might argue that our current President has more important things on his agenda than this. But, what can be more important than clean air and clean water? Without these two things we cannot survive. Shouldn’t our species future survival come before the comfort and convenience of electricity and fuel efficient cars, even before the concerns of the economy? It seems time to take a good hard look at our priorities.
In the meantime, next time you turn your air conditioners up to full blast or leave all the lights running in your house, even when you are the only person home, it might be a good idea to remember Ed Wiley and the people of Marsh Fork. Next time you take a drink of fresh water from your sink, even from the bottles in your fridge, you might consider how you will survive when it is gone. Can you afford to add the burden of trucking your water supply in, and if so, how long will even that water supply last if our government is not going to make protecting it in all areas of our nation a top priority?
After meeting and talking with Kathy Mattea and Ed Wiley, I was inspired to research this issue. I find myself agreeing with Al Gore who said, “Mountain top removal is a crime and ought to be treated as a crime, and the results of burning [this coal] without regard to the future…should also be treated as an unacceptable practice.” We are often concerned with the conditions of people in third world countries, where they are living without fresh water, surviving the horrors of poverty and regular bombing blasts, but we are ignoring the making of these same conditions right here in Appalachia.
Please, take the time to write to your government officials today and help bring a long overdue end to this destructive and potentially deadly practice. Urge Virginia to join the other states like North Carolina and Georgia who are working to ban the use of coal from these mines. Urge President Obama to do as he promised and truly support the Clean Air and Clean Water Protection Act by stopping mountain top removal.
For more information, visit www.ucsusa.org, or www.ilovemountains.org. Special thanks to Ed Wiley for risking everything to stop mountaintop removal coal mining and to Kathy Mattea for her willingness to share information and for donating her time, talent, and energy to this cause. Photographs were provided by Amanda C. Sandos and were taken in her back yard.