W.Va. leaders keep their heads in the sand on climate change and mountaintop removal

July 15, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

It’s been a year and a half since the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd cautioned West Virginians and their coal industry to “embrace the future.”  Remember what he said:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

It was hard this week to see much progress being made toward West Virginia, the coal industry and our elected leaders taking Sen. Byrd’s advice.

First, there was the incredible response that Gazette statehouse reporter Alison Knezevich got when she asked Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, about the groundbreaking West Virginia University study linking mountaintop removal to birth defects among Appalachian residents:

There’s reports every day on something causing some kind of illness.

Had Mr. Tomblin looked closely at the study or asked anyone in his administration to do so?

I’m not a researcher. Obviously it’s sad when any child is born with birth defects.

And not one West Virginia political leader I’m aware of has raised a single objection to the coal industry’s lawyers trying to dismiss the study’s results as being caused by imbreeding among coalfield residents. Not even Sen. Joe Manchin, who has always been quick to follow his uncle’s lead and jump on any outsider who makes hillbilly jokes.

It was left to a congresswoman from California, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier to respond to the claims of Crowell & Moring lawyers Clifford J. Zatz, William L. Anderson, Kirsten L. Nathanson, and Monica M. Welt, saying at a House hearing yesterday:

The coal industry’s response to this study was outrageous.

I’ve been trying most of the week to ask Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes most of Southern West Virginia’s mountaintop removal operations, what he thinks of the increase risk of birth defects among his constituents near the mines he so vocally supports. So far, he hasn’t had time for an interview on the subject.

I wondered yesterday if Rahall and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito were listening to the very powerful testimony of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Nancy Stoner, who told a House Oversight subcommittee:

In 2010 an independent, peer-reviewed study by two university professors found that communities near degraded streams have higher rates of respiratory, digestive, urinary, and breast cancer. That study was not conducted in a far-off country. It was conducted in Appalachian communities – only a few hundred miles from where we sit today. A peer-reviewed West Virginia University study released in May concludes that Appalachian citizens in areas affected by mountaintop mining experience significantly more unhealthy days each year than the average American. And a peer-reviewed study released days ago concluded that babies born to mothers who live in mountaintop mining areas of Appalachia have significantly higher rates of birth defects than babies born in other areas.

In addition to health studies, peer-reviewed science has increasingly documented the effects of surface coal mining operations on downstream water quality and aquatic life. Peer-reviewed studies have found elevated levels of highly toxic and bioaccumulative selenium; sulfates; and total dissolved solids in streams downstream of valley fills. Studies by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and independent scientists have emphasized the role of high selenium levels in causing developmental effects in fish. Peer-reviewed studies by EPA scientists have concluded that the environmental effects of surface coal mining include resource loss, water quality impairment, and degradation of aquatic ecosystems.

It has been a high priority of this Administration to reduce the substantial human health and environmental consequences of surface coal mining in Appalachia, and to minimize further impairment of already-compromised watersheds.

Perhaps this was considered out-of-bounds testimony, since the name of the GOP-organized hearing was “EPA’s Appalachian Energy Permitorium: Job Killer Or Job Creator?

But surely, they were all paying attention when Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, told lawmakers at that same hearing:

Mountaintop removal destroys coal mining jobs – as well as mountains. Underground mines, on the other hand, create 52% more job-hours than mountaintop removal mines for every ton they produce and employ nearly two thirds of the miners in Central Appalachia while producing just over half of the coal. Although the overall production from mountaintop removal mines declined by 25% between 2007 and 2010, employment at Central Appalachian coal mines increased. Claims by coal companies that more stringent permitting of mountaintop removal is causing an economic crisis in Central Appalachia are wrong. Since 2007, as production in Central Appalachia has shifted away from mountaintop removal and back toward underground mining, the increase in employment at underground mines has more than offset declines at other types of mines. Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs.

Because mountaintop removal mining replaces miners with explosives and giant machines, its demise would actually benefit workers in our region. We will mine the coal in central and northern Appalachia because our power plants require it. Importing western coal is not really an option in our region because of transportation bottlenecks, cost of transportation and the fact that many of our plants are built to burn high BTU eastern coal. When mountaintop removal is stopped, the production will be replaced with less destructive forms of mining that will actually employ more miners or with natural gas produced in the region.

No …  West Virginia political leaders were far more interested in focusing on the testimony of coal lobbyists and of union miner turned coal lobbyist Roger Horton, who remains understandably bitter about the closure of the Dal-Tex Mine when Arch Coal officials wouldn’t come up with a permit federal regulators and a federal judge would approve.

But am I the only one who found it curious that Horton didn’t speak up when one of the coal executives at yesterday’s hearing on EPA permit policies decided to take a shot at the Obama administration’s efforts to end black lung disease among his fellow coal miners?

Earlier in the day yesterday, prior to the House hearing, we heard the news that American Electric Power has decided to stop work on its hugely important carbon capture and storage test project over at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County.

On the radio this morning, I heard my good buddy Hoppy Kercheval opining about this development in his daily commentary:

Global warming, or “climate change” as it has now come to be known, has moved to the back pages. A recent Gallup Poll shows about half of all Americans still worry a great deal or a fair amount about climate change, but they have bigger fears about the economy.

The worst recession since the Great Depression, the stumbling recovery and now the pending default crisis have Americans more focused on their pocketbooks than their thermometers.

Congress has rejected cap-and-trade legislation that would have made carbon marketable (and driven up utility rates) and there seems to be no appetite for similar legislation in the near future.

The New York Times reports the West Virginia and Virginia Public Service Commissions are reluctant to allow electricity rate increases to pay for carbon sequestration.

That’s understandable. Customers are already squeezed because of the natural growth in rates and the sluggish economy. Requiring them to pay for a carbon sequestration experiment that might one day lead to lowering the planet’s temperature by a fraction of a degree won’t fly.

West Virginia, in fact the entire country, has more immediate problems.

First of all, it’s not exactly true that utility commissions aren’t allowing companies to pass costs of projects like this on to consumers. Sure, I know that AEP Chairman Michael Morris said that his company found it “impossible” to get approval for such rate hikes. But that’s simply not the case. As we reported this morning, the West Virginia PSC allowed AEP rate hikes to cover our state’s share of the costs. Virginia regulators seemed willing to do the same.

Next, Hoppy’s never been one to bother with actually understanding something like climate science. I haven’t heard him or anyone else on MetroNews, for example, report on the recent National Academy of Science report that told us:

Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks. In the judgment of the Committee on America’s Climate Choices, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.

But at least Hoppy mentioned the failure of climate legislation as a reason for AEP’s decision. The truly remarkable reactions to the AEP announcement came from Sen. Manchin and from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who tried to pretend that wasn’t what drove AEP’s decision.

Now, remember that Sen. Manchin cruised into the U.S. Senate based in part on an ad in which he pretended to shoot a copy of the cap-and-trade legislation that American Electric Power said was needed to make projects like the one at Mountaineer feasible.

But the reaction from the Manchin camp to Thursday’s AEP announcement was to call on the Obama administration to come up with U.S. Department of Energy money to fund the other half of the Mountaineer project:

I understand that in tough economic times, we cannot raise utility rates on our constituents in order to fund the development of new technologies. Still, I strongly believe in developing the technology of the future today, and that is why I will be sending a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Chu, asking and encouraging him to take another look at this incredibly promising carbon capture and sequestration program and work on finding a creative financing solution. The investments that have been made by both AEP and Alstom have produced technology that holds incredible promise for this nation’s energy future, and will help us achieve energy independence by allowing clean coal to play a role in our nation’s energy portfolio. I strongly believe we need to continue this project, and I hope the Department of Energy will find a way to support this critical program that is important to West Virginia and our nation’s energy future.

And Sen. Rockefeller, who has spent much of his time and effort also fighting climate legislation and trying to stop the Obama administration from issuing greenhouse gas limit regulations, said:

AEP and Alstom have made critical strides in developing clean coal technology. Proving its dedication to the issue, AEP even spent over $100 million of its own money for this CCS research and development project. Because of these efforts, we have learned a great deal that will help us get closer to fully deploying this important technology. Unfortunately, the financing to continue this demonstration project to Phase II just isn’t available. Nonetheless, I sincerely hope and believe that it will lead to other opportunities, and eventually help pave the way to a bright energy future for West Virginia and build jobs in our state.

What was it Sen. Byrd said?

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

6 Responses to “W.Va. leaders keep their heads in the sand on climate change and mountaintop removal”

  1. John says:

    I am a surface miner what some people do not understand that seams of coal are 1 foot to about 2 foot so u can not deep mine those seams of coal I have lived in Logan WV all my life I do not think that mtr causes birth defects that is people trying to stop the mining practice they are no flat land in this area to bring in other company’s but if you would look at the wood plant at Holden 22 it is on an old surface mine job I do not know how many people work there but I would say 150 or more that would not have jobs if not for surface mining earth go’s the cycles of hot an cold that is a fact and we are in one of the warm cycles but some people got to blame it on something

  2. Dianne Bady says:

    John – the issue raised in Ken’s blog post was not whether one believes or doesn’t believe that MTR causes birth defects.

    Scientists used very well established research methodology to examine the rate of birth defects in MTR areas and also in areas without MTR, including some underground mining areas.

    When the scientists statistically tested whether the results they found were likely to be due to chance, they found that these higher birth defect rates in MTR areas would not be expected to be a result of chance variation. Then, the researchers had other researchers examine their study and all the research and statistical methods used, to make sure that other experts could not find problems in their study.

    Only then could the results be released in a scientific journal.
    This is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of science.

  3. coalguy says:

    Sorry to disagree……but it’s not science. At this point, it is statistics. It will be science when they find out exactly what is at the source of the problem. What chemical, what metal, what dust particle. So, don’t call it science. It’s not science.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    No need to apologize for disagreeing. But it would be helpful if you provided some sort of support other than just your own opinion.

    Could you perhaps provide a link to some publication that provides a commonly accepted definition of the word “science” that in any way at all supports what you just said? I doubt it.

    This definition (from Wikipedia of all places, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science ) is a pretty widely accepted one, I believe:

    “Science (from Latin: scientia meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world.”

    In this instance, the work of Ahern and Hendryx was a systematic enterprise that built on the knowledge of what is known about mountaintop removal and the health of people who live in areas near where mining occurs. It provides explanations and predictions, and it can be easily tested by others to determine if the same outcome is reached.

    I’d be interested to see what definition you rely on. Please provide a link to where you come up with it.

    Thanks, Ken.

  5. Soyedina says:

    Not to chime in or dogpile, but Ahern et al. specifically tested spatially explicit hypotheses about landscape scale patterns. I am fairly certain that hypothesis testing is specifically the domain of “science” no matter what dictionary you look in.

    Perhaps more importantly, the goalposts set by coalguy here are not on the playing field of science. No amount of scrutiny and rigorous study can provide this sort of certainty, and it is counterproductive to raise that straw man as if it were an objective standard. What “dust particle”?

    that said, I agree that further study elucidating the causal pathways that generate these patterns would be a good thing!

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    As I’m sure you know, Ahern-Hendryx specifically called for more research on this issue —

    “In this exploratory study, we do not have the data to examine biological mechanisms by which mountaintop mining pollution may lead to birth defects. Investigating these potential mechan- isms remains an important future research step. Given the multi- ple forms of mountaintop mining pollution identified in previous research, involving multiple chemicals operating through both water and air transport routes (see Section 1), and the fact that elevated rates of birth defects were present across multiple organ systems, we offer as a working hypothesis for future research that mothers residing in different locations within the region may be exposed to different or combined impacts of the industry.”


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