Manchin: W.Va. floods are “an act of God”

May 13, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Gov. Joe Manchin has visited the flood-devastated areas of Mingo County several times over last weekend and since. And he’s said the state will do everything it can to help out those who were hit by this round of Southern West Virginia flooding.

But what else has the governor been up to?

Well, I caught a little bit of his discussion with Hoppy Kercheval (who is broadcasting live from Gilbert) on MetroNews Talkline.The governor was praising local coal companies (including Massey Energy and Buck Harless’ International Industries) for sending out heavy equipment and crews to help with the cleanup. Manchin didn’t mention — at least while I was listening — that in at least two cases, coal mining operations were at least partly responsible for the damage.

And then when I got to work, a reader had forwarded me a link from Rise Up! West Virginia, a blog that opposes mountaintop removal.  The blog outlined a story by Debra McCown in today’s Bristol Herald-Courier in Tennessee.

Apparently, Manchin took time out on Tuesday to head over to Kingsport, Tenn., and speak at the annual conference of the Eastern Coal Council, a regional industry group. In that speech, Manchin continued his praise for coal industry response to the flood and went a little farther, according to McCown:

Manchin praised coal companies for helping to clear the roads after “horrendous” flooding in the state over the past few days that he said was caused not by extensive strip mining but by “an act of God.”

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As I’ve tried to explain a couple of times since the weekend, it’s hard to say exactly how much a particular strip mine contributed to flooding in a particular hollow. (See previous posts here and here) You have to examine the site-specific hydrology and mining operation involved. WVDEP should do that — but its inspectors are more geared toward going to see if they find any violations. No violations? Then nothing happens. This doesn’t explain whether mining (and timbering for that matter) made things worse in Mingo County.

It’s hard to imagine that it didn’t, given the  clear science that shows large-scale surface mining — mountaintop removal — contributes to increases in peak discharges during heavy storms. Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting did a piece on this issue that said essentially the same thing:

On Sunday, Paul Noe was helping his sister clean mud out of her home.

“And each and every time it gets larger,” Noe said. “So the next one will be bigger. The same amount of rain, these creeks just fill in. The water does not have nowhere to go. They’ve done all this mountaintop removal and timber and gas line and all of that, and everything just fills these valleys in.”

Varney is surrounded on all sides by active and inactive mines. So he’s not the only resident to blame the mining and timber industries for increased flooding.Scientists who have looked at the issue say yes, mining and timbering can increase the severity of flooding – but it’s complicated.

Yes. It is complicated. And, as Peterson pointed out, WVDEP after the 2001 and 2002 floods put in place some new regulations to try to mitigate mining’s impacts. But were those regulations enough? Is WVDEP even going to ask?

You have to wonder about that, when you hear Gov. Manchin declaring it all an “Act of God.”

Oh, and that’s not all that Manchin said in his speech to that industry group in Tennessee. He also criticized efforts by Congress and the Obama administration to deal with global warming and offered another total defense of mountaintop removal, as McCown explained:

Carbon legislation soon up for debate in Congress could “make shambles out of this economy” by drastically increasing the price of energy, Manchin said, and all who see the need for coal should rally while economic concerns appear to trump environmental concerns in politics.

“This country is not going to be a world power without energy that is dependable and reliable, and that comes from coal,” Manchin said, adding that he is “fighting the good fight” for the economy.

Coal, he said, must be used as a bridge until a “fuel of the future” is found. And politicians, he said, must realize the danger of environmental regulation that could cost America its industrial might.

“Now is the time to bring the facts out. If you want to win this war, the economy trumps everything right now and we’ve got a golden opportunity,” Manchin said. “As soon as this economy turns around, I guarantee you the environment will trump us and we’re dead.”

Manchin also defended mountaintop removal, a method of strip mining that involves blasting away mountain peaks; he said the flat land it creates allows for development that his state and the region wouldn’t have otherwise.

“If I say in West Virginia that we are basically using every bit of disturbed land to enhance the quality of life … how in the world can a person look at me and say that’s not responsible, you can’t do that, you shouldn’t because you’re altering it,” Manchin said.

“I have a piece of land that produces very little taxes if any, it takes 50 years before you can harvest the timber, and I’ve got no tax base for the school system… . How can anybody tell me that’s what’s best for the people of West Virginia?”

31 Responses to “Manchin: W.Va. floods are “an act of God””

  1. Is “act of God” a legal term? Serious question.

  2. Bob Mooney says:

    West Virginia has a history — and a future — of flooding.

    Yes: “An act of God” definitely has legal applications, especially so when declared by a state governor: events outside of human control, such, for which no one can be held responsible.

    There are many, many, many factors in play when floods occur;

    It’s a time to lend hands, not to point fingers.

    I hope The Gazette will lead a state-wide effort to improve flood prevention and safety measures — a public service.

  3. Cindy Rank says:

    Governor Manchin was quoted as saying “If I say in West Virginia that we are basically using every bit of disturbed land to enhance the quality of life…… how in the world can a person look at me and say that’s not responsible, you can’t do that, you shouldn’t because you’re altering it…”

    IF — IF he says that, he may be stretching the truth… just a bit !

    The couple handful of mountaintop removal sites that have been developed and may ‘enhance the quality of life in WV’ are far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of acres where that has just not been done.

    …. And what in the world could he possibly mean by making this outrageous statement: “As soon as this economy turns around, I guarantee you the environment will trump us and we’re dead.”

  4. Annie Lynch says:

    It seems that Mountain top removal is fine if the end result is a strip mall. But when the sole purpose is to mine coal, then everyone is up in arms!

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Annie,

    That’s correct, actually. And there’s a reason for it — when Congress wrote the federal strip mine law, it intended mountaintop removal to be a limited exception, allowed only when companies propose and follow through on plans for post-mining development.

    Without post-mining development, the social compact with coalfield communities — the very compromise that allowed MTR to be legal — is broken.

    Ken.

  6. Jay says:

    I can’t believe they can get away with dredging the creeks down there and then hauling it up to MTR’s and strips.

  7. Danny W. says:

    One commenter writes that the Gazette should lead an effort to prevent floods. Well, that’s exactly what they are doing! Wisely deciding they can’t do anything to limit rainfall, the Gazette advocates limiting the human actions which turn the rainfall into ever-more destructive floods.

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  9. watcher says:

    Anyone who lives in WVs southern most counties know that if you dont live on a moutain, you are virtually living in the flood zone. It seems getting these residents out of harms way would be logical use of post mining development. This would enhance the quality of life for many people ,and save tax payers money on federally subsidized flood insurance.

  10. Well it is disheartening that, out of all the media coverage I have seen or heard, Mr. Ward is the only one who will even mention what any thinking person already knows.

    Of course timbering and strip mining, especially mountaintop removal, contributes to the flooding problem in southern WV.

    But to all the rest besides Ken Ward it is just the big white elephant in the room.

    Sad but true.

    Reminds me of the media coverage leading up to the Iraq invasion fiasco.

  11. Brandon says:

    Here we go, blaming mountaintop mining for all of our problems. Why don’t we blame mountaintop mining for all the tornoado’s and hurricanes on it also. Every time there is a problem in WV or KY we blame mountaintop mining. Some of those people flooded were working at a mountaintop mining site and no longer have a job due to the people fighting the method of mining. It is a time of gathering and helping, not a time of fighting and bickering. I pray for those people in Mingo County and hope all works out. I definitely hope all of the people layed off will get to go back to work.

  12. Pink Pony Logic says:

    Let’s say you live in a lovely family home that has been passed down for generations. Then you hear that a Laundromat is to be built beside your home that will blow the exhaust from 80 dryers right in your bedroom window. You complain and are told that the county needs the jobs and taxes from the business so you should just move.

    The comment above

    { 05.14.09 at 8:05 am It seems getting these residents out of harms way would be logical.. }

    is not a fair solution because most of those families settled in those valleys long before the first mountaintop was ever removed. Nor is it logical. Using that logic the people equation, in the MTR debate, should be erased along with the history and private property of any native mountaineer family living remotely near a proposed strip mine.

    The next time I hear that argument from someone I would like to say to them: “I’m glad you feel that way. Tell me where you live. There are a lot of unemployed dancers in the state who need to get back to work, so you won’t mind if I build a ‘Pink Pony’ in your back yard.”

  13. Jack says:

    The impact of Valley fills on runoff from 7 inches of rain in a short period of time warrants investigation. Those that I have seen contsructed consist a rock core with laterals every 30 vertical feet. I believe you will find such a structure would retard a rapid flash flood rather than facilitate it. The very same type of storms that caused flooding in the Appalachian Mountains cause the same type of floods on the plains and prairies hundreds of miles away from any mining activity. Floods happen!

  14. Responsibility? says:

    Yeah, the Buffalo Creek disaster was an Act of God”, too. I guess the coal companies are never responsible for anything…they just work for God.
    Seems God must not be too fond of Southern WV!

  15. Clem Guttata says:

    If the social compact is an exchange of post-mining development for MTR, that’s a good argument for a moratorium on all new MTR.

    There must be thousands of acres of MTR sites remaining undeveloped. We not leave that coal in the ground–where it will only grow more and more valuable–until there is greater demand for developed land in the coal fields.

    Let’s finish the reclamation efforts of the mines already closed and the ones underway before starting any new ones.

    Now, here’s a question… if you owned a coal mining company, how much high value economic development would you want to see in areas near your present and future coal mining operations? Do you think nearby development would be good or bad for your ability to mine coal as cheaply as possible?

  16. hollergirl says:

    I agree with “responsibility”. Coal companies sometimes think they are “God”. It seems as if southern West Virginia and Eastern Ky are especially hard hit. I would like to remind people of the famous reply from a Buffalo Creek survivor- after she was told that the Buffalo Creek Disaster was being blamed on God.. she said–
    Well, I didn’t see Jesus up there a driving that bulldozer.

  17. So Sad says:

    This is the craziest thing I have every heard there was also a big flood in 1972 before the surface mining was going on in the Gilbert area it was as bad as this one what was the cause for it. When you get this much rain at one time you will flood unless you are on top of a mountain.

  18. 7th Generation says:

    My word. Joe Manchin says the flood was an act of God. Next he’ll be saying it’s good for the state’s economy because everyone will have to go out and buy new stuff.

    I don’t see how anyone who thinks they might have descendants can support MTR. Let’s think beyond the end of our noses, people. If there’s no clean water, nothing else matters.

  19. JBM says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a “flood” an overabundance of WATER? If it doesn’t rain enough to flood, it doesn’t flood regardless of whatever happens to the mountain. MTR doesn’t increase the amount of rainfall an area get’s. If you blame MTR for flooding, then you have to then blame pavement for hydroplaning, and pool manufactures for drownings. Anything + too much water is dangerous, but you can’t blame “Anything”.

    American’s forget everything we need coal for. 51% of the nations electricity ring any bells? Would you rather have a nuclear reactor down the street, or a coal mine in WV. Everything made out of steel wouldn’t have been possible without coal. It’s an easy decision to make – either stay or become more dependent on foreign oil and terrorist friendly nations, or utilize one of our greatest domestic assets. Anyone would agree that we are going to have to eventually come up with a better solution to the environmental harm carbon fuels bring about, but until that time comes we have to do the best we can. Coal get’s blamed for everything, but people would be miserable without everything it enables to have in our lives. WV would have nothing if it wasn’t for coal, and everyone in America would feel the effects of cutting coal out of our everyday lives.

  20. Foothills says:

    JBM, allow me to correct you. Storm flooding is dependent on 2 things, the amount of rain, and the condition of the land it falls on. Take a 1/4 cup of water and pour it on a dry sponge, then take the same amount of water and pour it on a tabletop. If mining is altering the ability of the land to absorb and/or contain water negatively, it is contributing to flooding.

  21. Mark says:

    I’d like to take a moment to reply to some of the previous comments.

    “It was an act of God,” said Joe Manchin ….. could the Governor be referring to the mining companies as God?

    “West Virginia has a history — and a future — of flooding.”
    Let’s study that history and see if the flooding is intensifying as a result of MTR or other factors (simply more rain per storm).

    Rain may be an act of God, but flooding may be intensified by acts of Man. See Foothills comment above.

    “It is a time of gathering and helping, not a time of fighting and bickering.” I agree. We can help prevent future flooding by determining the cause of the intense flooding. If MTR is contributing, we can ban MTR and return to traditional methods of coal mining. In addition to being much more river bed friendly due to the lack of valley fill – traditional deep mining also INCREASES employment in coal mines as these methods are more labor intensive. MORE jobs and safer rivers – who could argue with that (other than the coal companies who simply focus on cost efficiency and shareholder return; and not collateral damage)?

    “Why don’t we blame mountaintop mining for all the tornoado’s and hurricanes on it also?”.

    We’re not blaming MTR for southern WV weather patterns. (Although, it may be somewhat attributable to global climate change. Perhaps the flooding is caused by or made more intense by MTR. Instead of blame I propose this – let’s study the situation. In the last decade it seems that every time it rains southern WV is making national news with horrific flooding…. Either the amount and intensity of rainfall have increased in these storms or the changes in topography due to MTR have intensified or simply created the flooding

    Has anyone studied the pre / post MTR impact on flooding? Historically, there are many times when just as much rain has fallen in a short period of time. The question is: Was there any / as much flooding prior to MTR as after? There are certainly enough weather records available to look at.

  22. Brad Miller says:

    This is really not a good sign from a Governor. He is praising these mining companies for sending heavy equipments to clean up the mess caused by a flood? Even these companies will send huge numbers of bucket trucks, this will not change the issue.

  23. Jimbo says:

    Floods are “an act of God”? I didn’t know that God is a criminal.
    Let’s say it with common sense: The floods are an act of weather extremes and probably climate change.
    BTW, praising the coal companies which destroy the forests and make the floods even worse is an act of idiocy.

  24. Shew says:

    It’s just common sense people = No Rain, No Flooding.
    Rain is an Act Of GOD. If I poured 5 gallons of water on a kitchen sponge – or even a “Sham Wow” for that matter – it would spill over and drip in the floor. We had a week of rain without stopping, then a solid 12 hour downpour. It wouldn’t have mattered whether the mountain tops were altered or not.

    More people died in the Sago mine tragedy than in the recent flooding. By some peoples’ reasoning, we should have more of them in that position rather than the safer method of MTR?

    We need coal for many things, we need to mine it to have it. MTR is safer than deep mining. It may contribute to flooding, but in this particular case, it was completely unavoidable.

    There are no mines anywhere near some of the areas that were flooded. How do you account for that?? That is proof that it was the fault of excessive rain. Period.

  25. C Calhoun says:

    When you strip the trees and create vast areas of flattened mountains you have immense increases in stormwater runoff. It does not take WVDP or anyone else to understand this.

    Since most of West Virginia coal is shipped overseas and not used for electricity at home it’s economic impact is all in the fat pockets of the shareholders.

    The value of an acre of properly managed hardwood forest is ten times that over time of an acre of stripped ground that yields its coal just once. What’s left is profits for the shareholders, and coal burnt dirty in foreign countries, and local West Virginians left to drink bad water and be depressed by the collapse of the appalachian forest ecosytem through massive forest fragmentation.

    Floods, poison water and more all courtesy of King Coal and Manchin.

  26. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Folks,

    I think a couple of readers on both sides of this are misunderstanding what I’ve written — and what the science says.

    What the science says is NOT that strip mining alone causes flooding. What is says is that, other things being equal, strip mining makes floods more likely to occur and more likely to be worse when there are heavy rains. That’s the science as I’ve seen it.

    So — it may be that, given the amounts of rain in some parts of Southern WV last weekend, there would have been some flooding anyway. But, given the science, it is likely that strip mining in the areas where it has occurred made it more likely that this flooding would occur and made it more likely that it would be worse.

    To really know the impacts in particular locations, more detailed examinations of the localized flooding needs to be done.

    What I’ve asked is why the Manchin administration isn’t advocating for that, as the Wise administration wisely did after the floods in 2001 and 2002?

    Do they not want to know the answer?

    Ken.

  27. Tim Mullins says:

    Appalachia can’t stand anymore of the progress and prosperity thanks to mountaintop removal and the new and improved, clean, green, hybrid coal industry. We are being bombed, blasted and bulldozed right into 3rd world America !

    http://www.wisecountyissues.com/?p=138

    As long as the politicians and the profit machine is raking it in at our expense, people don’t matter. God didn’t put these mountains and streams here for man to decapitate and destroy, this is a sin !!!

  28. Mingo_Countian says:

    Here are a couple of ideas to consider in the discussion about the recent flooding. First, identify where the flooding occurred, then check out Google Earth and the WVDEP website to determine where surface mining has occurred. In the Matewan area, Warm Hollow, Rutherford Hollow and Mitchell Branch were heavily impacted as well as the areas where those tributaries empty into Mate Creek. Also, check the area around Hanover in Wyoming County. You will find that no surface mining has occurred in those watersheds, thus surface mining could not have contributed in any manner to the flooding there.

    Next, either visit or ask someone who has been there about the storm damage. For instance, look at the ephemeral drains on the mountain between Red Jacket and Taylorville – notice how the runoff was so intense it washed everything (rock and dirt) out of these stream beds leaving nothing but a gully cut down to bedrock. Again, no surface mining has occurred upstream.

    We have way too many tools via the Internet that allow us to “remotely” evaluate events such as this to justify simply jumping to conclusions. Someone reporting on this flooding could have spent an hour or less correlating flooding to mining and determined that surface mining was not the cause. That raises a good question – did someone do this correletion but then choose to not report the results? Why stop a good witch hunt, right?

  29. DONNA says:

    I have been reading some of the comments that so many people have written. The mining industry does hold a big part of the blame because they didn’t reclaim the land properly. The regulations should be more strict. But people in Southern West Virginia need to stop filling up the creek to make a bigger yard. They put drain pipes in and fill in with dirt, and when it rains the water has nowhere to go.

  30. I also believe that The regulations should be more strict, so this wont happen again

  31. Bucket Truck says:

    Very informative article. Thanks for sharing.

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