In April opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining believed the federal government was finally ready to outlaw such operations. But a new recommendation to permit yet another huge mine has Appalachian environmentalists baffled and angry.
In April, a turn in the Environmental Protection Agency bouyed Lorelei Scarbro with hope. After many trips to the nation’s capitol to oppose mountaintop removal mining, the 54 year old grandmother and coal miner’s widow thought the EPA was taking its first steps to abolish the radical coal extraction process that threatens her West Virginia home.
But two weeks ago, the EPA seemingly reversed course. It recommended approval of a major mountaintop removal mine in nearby Logan County, WV, an operation that would level 760 mountain acres, fill three valleys, and destroy more than two miles of streams.
“The most important thing to me is clean drinking water for my grandchildren,” Scarbro wrote to Lisa Jackson of the EPA after the June decision. “I don’t believe that is possible if we continue to destroy and cover head water streams in Appalachia. Once again, I have lost hope. Please don’t let this be the final word.”
Scarbro lives in fear that a coal mine like this one will bury her home in Raleigh County, West Virginia, taking with it the way of life she holds dear. Her house, built by her late husband, stands in the shadow of one of the last untouched mountains in the area, Coal River Mountain. Massey Energy is poised to blast it to smithereens.
Massey holds permits to surface mine Coal River Mountain using mountaintop removal (MTR), a process where up to 800 feet of a mountain is blown up so coal in the newly exposed seams can be scraped out with heavy machinery. Debris from the blast is then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams, often causing severe environmental and health problems for surrounding communities. The non-profit environmental group Appalachian Voices, basing its figures on the records of individual mine permits, estimates that 1.2 million acres of Appalachian forest have already been destroyed by surface mining, with 750,000 acres lost to mountaintop removal.
Scarbro, born and raised in Coal River Valley, has witnessed the devastation caused by mountaintop removal first hand. “I have seen communities – literally communities – destroyed, all for a greater profit margin for the coal companies.” she said. “If we are not successful in saving this mountain, then everything I have, and everything all my neighbors have, will be destroyed.”
Scarbro has been fighting for years to save Coal River Mountain from Massey’s bulldozers and dynamite. She is a currently trying to stop the blasting by advocating for an alternative energy plan, The Coal River Wind Farm. The solution would fundamentally change the coal-based economy in West Virginia by halting mountaintop removal in favor of sustainable energy jobs, while allowing for continued traditional subterranean coal mining. Already, the proposed wind farm has faced stiff opposition; political power in West Virginia has long been entwined with the coal industry. But Scarbro believes that by engaging in mountaintop removal, the coal companies are subverting the best interests of West Virginians.
The coal operators “have no heart,” she said. “They have no respect for the living or the dead. It’s almost like they don’t see us as living, breathing human beings. We’re just to be erased out of their path. It needs to stop.”
Earlier this spring, statements by some federal officials suggested that others, too, wanted to end mountaintop removing mining. On April 1, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency announced stricter regulations intended to limit surface mining in Appalachia. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, then said, “Coal communities should not have to sacrifice their environment, or their health, or their economic future to mountaintop mining.”
The announcement gave new hope to MTR opponents. “The spirit and ethic of the EPA’s guidance was that they were curtailing mountaintop removal,” said Rainforest Action Network’s Nell Greenberg. Some, like Scarbro, believed the EPA’s new rules were the government’s first step toward abolishing mountaintop removal completely. “This is the beginning of the end for valley fills and mountaintop removal,” she told the Huffington Post.
But less than two months later, the government shattered those hopes. In late June, the EPA recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers approve a permit sought by the coal company Coal-Mac for the Pine Creek Surface Mine in Logan County.
Opponents of mountaintop removal interpret this action as a clear reversal of the position the EPA took in April. “We have seen mountaintop removal permits simply rubber stamped in the past,” said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network. “This feels like more of the same.” Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club Environmental Justice, and the West Virginina Highlands Conservancy are among a dozen citizen groups that oppose MTR mining. “Nobody thinks that mountaintop removal is good for the environment,” contends Greenberg, also of the Rainforest Action Network.
But for Scarbro, the EPA’s decision is not just a matter of acres, valleys and streams. To her, it betrays a promise made directly to the people of Appalachia. Scarbro expressed her disappointment to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson in a letter excerpted here:
I have left my very peaceful home 3 miles up in Rock Creek and traveled to DC many times in the past 2 years to help the powers that be to really see the face of coal. I hope that by telling the people on Capitol Hill how the decisions they make affect the lives of the people in the mountain communities they might begin to see us as valuable. Too often we are treated like collateral damage or just the price of doing business.
I was on the call on April 1 when you released the guidance for conductivity levels and I was very excited when I heard you say, ‘You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.’ The release of this guidance and your words brought hope to many people that long ago lost it.
I have been very thankful for all of the steps this EPA has taken to improve life in the mountain communities of Appalachia, but I was heartbroken when I saw the decision on Pine Creek.
Although I live about 1 ½ hours from this area I stand with the citizens there and I fear that this is just the beginning of many more permit releases. We believed you when you spoke about ‘zeroing out valley fills.’ Where I am from, sometimes all you have is your word….
With the federal government sending mixed signals, and pressure building from both activists and the coal industry, the future of mountaintop removal remains uncertain. What remains certain is that Lorelei Scarbro will continue to fight for her home, for the people of Appalachia and their way of life.
Robert Browman, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia journalist, is the lead writer and co-editor of The Coal War, a documentary of mountaintop removal mining and its impact in Appalachia.