Coal Tattoo

A turning point for mountaintop removal?


A modest size blast detonates on Kayford Mountain, March 18, 2009. Photo by Antrim Caskey.

In the midst of all of the anticipation about what President Barack Obama might do about mountaintop removal, I got a pretty important e-mail on the subject. The sender didn’t want to be identified, but I want to pass on what he told me:

I hope you’ll press everyone involved to say with specificity how they think any anti-MTR action by Obama or Congress would play out in real time — pending applications, pending permits, existing permits, regulatory changes, lawsuits/injunctions/takings/impairment of contracts claims, layoffs and shutdowns, coal supply agreements, greater AOC/smaller valley fills, more deep mines(?) — the works.  I know you won’t get many good answers, but at least you’ll be pushing against simplistic views.  Surely some smart people would speak on or off the record about where they think all this could go.

So … think that came from someone in the coal industry? Wrong. This guy has no love for coal mining. But he’s one of the smarter and more thoughtful people I know, and he follows and cares about these issues — and about the future of the coalfields and the people here. And I think the discussion he’s suggesting definitely needs to occur.


(Map by West Virginia Highlands Conservancy)

In fact, this discussion might have happened already, if it weren’t for the Bush administration. The federal Environmental Impact Statement was intended to help the region, its people and our government figure some of these things out. And indeed, the EIS gave us tons of information about the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal (See stories here, here and here). But the Bush administration hijacked the study, using it to instead promote ways to speed up the issuance of new mining permits.

In the process, Bush officials dropped any detailed examination of various alternatives that might have reduced the impacts of mountaintop removal. While the EIS spelled out ways that limits on valley fills would “sterilize” some coal reserves — meaning they likely wouldn’t be mined — it also said the broad economic impacts of that would not be as great as industry folks and some politicians predicted. But in the end, the EIS was so misdirected by the Bush administration that I’m not sure it really gave the region the information it so badly needed to deal with this issue.

So what now?

Even the United Mine Workers of America has indicated a willingness to have this sort of discussion.  But after a union spokesman said so, UMW President Cecil Roberts quickly back-tracked, because coal company officials started using the statements to attack the union. And over the last few years, the fight over mountaintop removal has far too often played out in requests for emergency court injunctions, as environmental groups try to slow down the steady march of new permits. These fights end up in one of two ways:

— A courtroom full of angry miners who just want to put food on their tables wrongly pitted against coalfield citizens who just want to live in peace, with politicians taking advantage of the situation to give self-serving speeches.

— Federal regulators hiding information about when permits are issued, so that coal company lawyers can march into court and throw their arms in the air, telling a judge it’s too late, the mining already started, and the damage is done.

Neither of these situations makes for good public policy.

dragline1.jpgPresident Obama could order the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse the Bush adminstration’s fill rule changes, essentially blocking most valley fills. Or, Obama could tell the Interior Department to reverse the Bush changes to the stream “buffer zone” rule, which would outlaw a smaller number of valley fills.

But neither of those actions is a short-term strategy. Changing those rules again will take a long time. And it’s far from clear that the Obama administration will do either.

Still, there’s a flood of permits sitting at the Corps office in Huntington, waiting to be issued.  And if Obama does nothing in the short term, it’s likely to unleash all sorts of new court fights that just stir the pot and make little progress toward a rational policy on mountaintop removal.

So the real question at this point is what will Obama do to avoid that? There are tons of questions about how Appalachian can transition to whatever long-term change in policy on mountaintop removal Obama decides upon. But answering those questions is going to take time and open, honest discussions among all interested parties.

As I write this, I’m reminded of what the late Judge Charles H. Haden II said nearly a decade ago, when he stayed his original ruling in the Bragg mountaintop removal case:

The court … is able to understand that the shrill atmosphere of discord must subside … it is preferable to attempt to defuse invective and diminish irrational fears so that reasoned decisions can be made with all deliberate speed, but with distractions minimized.