Mixed narrative: More on CNN and Blair Mountain

August 15, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.


It’s been more interesting to watch the reactions to CNN’s highly-promoted piece on Blair Mountain and mountaintop removal than it was to watch the show itself.

Initially, some environmental groups — especially Appalachian Voices — were promoting the heck out of this show. Many folks I heard from, including the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden, had kind words for the piece. In the comments section of Coal Tattoo last week, photojournalist Antrim Caskey, who has been documenting the movement against mountaintop removal, had this to say about Soledad O’Brien’s work on the Battle for Blair Mountain:

She is fresh, very different from say, Diane Sawyer; O’Brien is friendly when she calls people out on some of the outrageous lines they say, in an effort to get to the real facts.

Just like Bill Haney’s film, The Last Mountain, with RFK Jr, the CNN piece goes to great lengths to suss out each “side” and as a result is very fair. Very fair, giving both “sides” their say.

But even before the piece aired last night, some in the environmental community were criticizing it. Melissa Waage of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote on an NRDC blog:

… Crucial voices are missing from this piece, and it relies far too heavily on a clunky, over-simplified “us vs. them” theme. Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported “jobs. vs. the environment” frame.

Virtually unheard in The Battle for Blair Mountain are the many people who have been most deeply, personally harmed by mountaintop removal mining, through physical illness, life-threatening flooding, and livelihood-destroying damage to their homeplaces.

And now, Matt Wasson at Appalachian Voices is criticizing the piece in a “Fact Check” item on his group’s blog:

While O’Brien and her crew were able to tell both sides of the debate in compelling and emotionally powerful ways, the documentary suffered from the same flaw that just about every environmental story CNN has ever done suffers from: it is presented in a “jobs vs environment” frame that is devoid of any actual analysis of whether that frame is appropriate.

And my good friend Bob Kincaid from Coal River Mountain Watch tweeted last night:

@CNN swings and misses w/ #MTR special. It’s not “jobs vs. environmentalists.” It’s OUR LIFE vs. death from coal profiteers.

Never one to be subtle, Bob also tweeted:

Up Next on CNN!: Drug dealers vs. Schoolchildren. Who’s right?

Was it really that bad? Not really. In truth, the CNN piece provided, as I mentioned on Friday, a pretty balanced overview of the different sides of this story. As I also mentioned, Joe Atkins at Facing South made some good points in an essay called Where’s the passion and the justice in CNN’s Blair Mountain documentary?

And actually, CNN gave a fair amount of time to a detailed discussion of the findings of West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx, whose work has detailed the growing science about mountaintop removal’s damaging impacts on public health in the region. And through University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer and Marshall University’s Scott Simonton, the CNN piece did a pretty good job on the science of how mountaintop removal harms the environment.

So what’s the problem with the program?

Well, start with the fact that CNN decided to build its piece around following the lives of coal miner James Dial and his wife, Linda, as they face the prospect of losing James’ job if a new mountaintop removal permit is blocked by federal regulators.

As soon as I saw that, I wondered why environmental groups were so strongly promoting the piece. Our public discourse being what it is in this country — especially on issues like this one — one side simply can’t stand the notion that a media story will focus on the other wise. The idea that we might learn something from someone we disagree with is one we can’t accept anymore, I suppose.

James Atkins described the Dials’ role in the CNN piece, and their position on the overall issue, this way:

James Dial earns $65,000 a year (nearly twice what local school teachers earn) doing “reclamations” on destroyed mountains — that is, taking his bulldozer and crew and trying to rebuild a mountain with the refuse of rock and sand mountaintop removal leaves. He’s a trained carpenter, but that line of work doesn’t pay $65,000 a year in rural West Virginia. He and his wife lead the effort to let the companies have their way.

Atkins continued:

… James Dial wants to keep his $65,000-a-year job. Nothing wrong with that, until a journalist puts that perspective on an equal level with a mountain of evidence and the perspective of nearly everyone else who has any real insight into what mountaintop removal ultimately means.

As is often the case with so-called “objective” stories, the real issue lies beyond the two sides presented. Where is there real scrutiny of the coal companies and their practices? Their involvement in the communities? Their past records? They hand O’Brien a press release and take a powder. Where is there a real look into the history of this area, the epic, century-old struggle of miners for social justice?

Phew. That’s a lot to fit into one TV program — and certainly more than anyone who pays much attention to national television network news should have thought they would get from a CNN piece about the coalfields.

But I appreciated how Atkins describes the real truth as perhaps being somewhere “beyond” the two sides presented — as opposed to the common notion that the truth is somewhere between the two sides presented. We in the media have done the nation no favors with our continued insistence that there are two sides — just two sides — to any story, and if we present he two most extreme spokespeople for those two sides we’ve done our job.

Melissa Waage at NRDC is right when she observes:

Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported “jobs. vs. the environment” frame.

I’m not sure how many times CNN showed Chuck Keeney, organizer of the Blair Mountain March, talking about how mountaintop removal actually reducing the number of mining jobs, but surely no one watched the program without getting that point.

Melissa at NRDC, though,  seems to mostly be looking for the show to present more people who would make viewers sympathetic to her group’s position that mountaintop removal should be banned:

… As good a job as the program does at conveying the sorrow and anger of people whose history and culture is about to be erased by MTR, it misses the many stories of people whose lives have been even more profoundly disrupted by the practice. While the program acknowledges science pointing to serious health impacts, it does not interview people whose health has been seriously harmed.

Similarly, the program acknowledges the potential damage to nearby properities from blasting, water contamination, and coal dust, but does not interview any of the many people who have had their homes significantly damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal.

Why not spend a few minutes with people like Maria Gunnoe and other victims of life-threatening flooding in Bob White, WV?

Why not get some advice from Bo Webb of the Coal River Valley about local residents sickened by mine impacts or those who’ve lost loved ones to the chronic illnesses increasingly associated with MTR?

From where I sit, the CNN piece did as well as any other national media at explaining this point of view, and a better job than most at articulating the science that supports this point of view.

But the critics are right that it then fell into the media’s comfortable narrative, through which any environmental controversy is simply a “battle” of “jobs versus the environment.” It’s like I used to joke in the newsroom about what happens when national media descend on anywhere in the country with such a controversy — the inevitable headline is, “Town divided over [fill in the blank].”

Where the CNN piece fell down is where all of us in the media have failed, as far as covering these issues in the Appalachian coalfields: It accepted as unavoidable the notion that, without a new mountaintop removal permit — and another and another and another after that — there will be no jobs and no future, not just for James Dials, but for the generation after him and the generation after that …

Coalfield politicians make out like all we need here to improve things is for those nasty folks from the Obama administration to get out of the way, and let the next coal boom bring on the good times.

But the truth is, experts don’t think that boom is coming, regardless of what EPA or the Obama administration do.  An in their zeal to kill off any regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, coalfield political leaders have at the same time halted a key test project aimed at technology that is absolutely necessary if coal is to survive very far into our future.

Meanwhile, as kids in the coalfields prepare to head back for another year of school, our society continues to foster attitudes that have many of them thinking that the only possible future for them is coal. If a kid wants to work as a coal miner, that’s one thing … but do we really want our kids to think they have only one option in life, no matter what that option is?

So nothing against Bo Webb or Maria Gunnoe. The problem with the CNN story wasn’t that they didn’t talk to enough mountaintop removal opponents.

The problem was most simple. CNN interviewed Art Kirkendoll, who has been a county commissioner in Logan County for 30 years. They let him go on about what God does or doesn’t want done with West Virginia’s mountains.

But they didn’t bother to ask him about the fact that Logan County’s poverty rate is twice the national average, or why the college graduation rate there is one-third of the national average … They didn’t bother to ask him why kids in Logan County don’t deserve more than one option in life.

21 Responses to “Mixed narrative: More on CNN and Blair Mountain”

  1. Hi Ken–

    Great and thoughtful overview of the reactions. I think you’re bang on when you write,

    “But the critics are right that it then fell into the media’s comfortable narrative, through which any environmental controversy is simply a ‘battle’ of ‘jobs versus the environment.'”

    It would have been nice for Soledad to ask Art Kirkendoll the questions you suggest, or to include a brief interview with someone who could speak a bit more to the thornier questions of long-term economic development in the region.

    And yes, I was absolutely “looking for the show to present more people who would make viewers sympathetic to [NRDC’s] position that mountaintop removal should be banned,” as I made clear in that blog post.

    The show set up this simple “jobs vs. environment” frame. Then they told a very personal and sympathetic story on the “jobs” side. They cited facts and interviewed scientists on the “environment” side, when they could have quite easily told a more personal story of a family adversely affected by MTR in parallel to the Diels’ story. I do think it tends to bias the audience to stack a personal (and very well told, in my opinion) story up against scientists and data.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Keep in mind that the CNN show was part of a series called, “Working in America,” that is among the only such programs I’m aware of on mainstream networks that set out to tell the stories of workers. Plenty of people in the labor movement would say it’s about time one – just one — of the national media pieces on mountaintop removal focused on a coal miner.

    In addition, as you noted in your blog, CNN included a number of scenes featuring Billy Smutko talking about how nearby mining operations have impacted his life and property.

    It would be interesting to know specifically what the NRDC’s action plan for dealing with the “thornier questions” of long-term economic development in this region are.


  3. Hey Ken–

    The rarity of a focus on the miner in mainstream media is definitely a fair point. I recognize that Mr. Smutko is clearly affected but there are many more people much more seriously affected. It’s their absence from the story that seems to be the sticking point for critics like Bob Kincaid. The people who are not being poetic when they say “mountaintop removal is killing us.”

    Has anyone asked Gov. Tomblin, Sen. Manchin or Reps. Rahall, Capito, and McKinley what the long term economic action plan is, recently?

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Yes. My newspaper has asked that question repeatedly and recently. During the gubernatorial primary here, the Gazette asked candidates this question:

    Would you do anything to move West Virginia toward a more stable and diverse economy that isn’t so dependent on coal? Their answers are online here, http://www.sundaygazettemail.com/News/201104151244

    I still say it would be interesting to see the NRDC’s action plan in this regard.


  5. Vernon says:

    I too found Mr. Kirkendoll’s comments about God’s plans interesting: coal for WV, tobacco for the Carolinas. I would have liked Ms. O’Brien to ask him if he thought the scientists and doctors who say that smoking is bad for our health were interfering with God’s plan.

  6. EnviroSci says:

    I enjoy reading Coal Tattoo. This is my first post because the “who has a plan for economic life in Central Appalachia-post coal” struck a nerve. Irregardless of what happens to surface (mountain top removal) mining, King Coal in Central Appalachia has one foot in the grave and another n a banana peel. I doubt surface mining will ever be outlawed as it would require a drastic change in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA). The politicians that come from states that have a vested interest in SMCRA are not going to champion a change that would be detrimental to the coal industry. The rest simply don’t care. Demand for coal from utilities will continue to decrease and completion from the Powder River Basin will continue to increase thus making Central Appalachian coal less attractive to that market. Whether it’s environmental concerns or just plain economics; coal is on its way out. I personally predict maybe 50 more years. Other people as, or more knowledgeable about the subject than me, predict as few as 20 years.

    It is apparent (at least for now) that none of our elected officials want to tackle the problem of transitioning the economy away from a coal-dependent one to one more balanced. When the EPA began its “crackdown” on surface mining, they promised a plan to transition the economy. That was 2.5-3 years ago, and not so much as draft or public hearing has been seen or heard. That being the case, it seems to me that someone needs to put forward a plan and attempt to get some discussion in the public about what we’re going to do when coal goes away. Because it will, eventually, go away.

  7. Edd442 says:

    The entire issue of water quality and “toxicity” was muddied in the CNN special. First, it was not made clear that higher conductivity levels are not “dangerous” or “toxic” to people for drinking water. High conductivity, or Total Dissolved Solids, are toxic to aquatic life.
    Second, James Dial may not feel like he has to stop drinking the water because there are not fish floating “belly-up”, but that statement is misleading, left to stand on its own. Just because fish aren’t dying, doesn’t mean there isn’t something in the water that is bad for you. This gets at the difference between acute and chronic water quality standards. You can ingest a high level of a contaminant, and that might kill you right away. Or you can ingest a low level of a contaminant, one that doesn’t kill the fish, over a period of time, and it will still kill you, or harm you, or make you very sick. THAT is what chronic standards are for. So, this is where I have a big problem with the whole, “we need to trust our own senses” idea that we hear from the anti-regulation crowd so much lately. There is real value in understanding the science, understanding the facts, not just trusting our own senses. What you can’t see, smell, or taste CAN kill you.
    But regardless of what the water quality is like in Mr. Dial’s location, it should have been made clear that what the environmentalists were talking about was toxicity to critters in the water, not toxicity to humans.

  8. Matt Wasson says:

    I think a lot of us are happy to see CNN focusing on working people — apparently contrary to popular belief, a whole lot of us mountaintop removal opponents work for a living as well. And I thought CNN did an outstanding job of telling the stories of mining families in a way that, well… I suspect I wasn’t the only one who found myself tearing up at Linda Dials’ devastated reaction to the Spruce #1 decision.

    My – and Melissa’s – criticisms were not about CNN’s focus, but about the fact that their story left an exceedingly misleading impression of the real challenges faced by mining communities in Appalachia. I guess I still cling to some naive belief that news organizations should dig for the truth in addition to telling compelling and/or controversial stories (that’s no criticism of you or the Gazette, Ken — unlike CNN, you generally do a great job of that). Telling their stories does no favor to miners if CNN is only reinforcing false perceptions of the challenges they face. And I’m pretty sure that the average person came away with the belief that it’s the restrictions on permitting – whether or not one believes they are warranted due to environmental or public health concerns – that has led to the economic devastation of Appalachian coal communities.

    After writing my post I still felt a little unsatisfied with my own analysis of how restrictions on mountaintop removal may or may not have affected population trends in the area, so I looked up some US Census data this morning and… wow, it’s phenomenal how completely wrong the statements by some of the MTR supporters were (though I’m positive they truly believed what they were saying and did not intend to be dishonest). I just threw a graph together of those census data for Logan County and it’s something I really hope Linda and James Dials and Diann Kish, nevermind Art Kirkendoll or Joe Manchin, will take a glance at ( http://flic.kr/p/adkWtW ). Up until the late 90s when the MTR industry in Logan County was booming, the county was absolutely hemorrhaging population. Over the past decade, however, population has stabilized. In fact, 2009-2010 was the first year since the mid-70s that Logan County is estimated to have actually grown in population.

    Do those facts in any way resemble the impressions you were left with after watching the CNN special? Didn’t think so.

  9. Matt Wasson says:

    I also want to reinforce what EnviroSci says – there’s simply not a single trend in the energy industry that would lead one to believe that coal mining is anything other than an economic dead end for Appalachia.

    But I also recognize that EnviroSci’s point and my own previous comment don’t really address the immediate concerns of those that fear the loss of their livelihoods in the short term – and graphs and academic discussion of long-term trends are cold comfort, I’m sure. But I’m also pretty sure that James Dials doesn’t want me or Melissa Waage telling him what work he should be doing any more than he wants us telling him what work he shouldn’t be doing. However, I’ve heard a lot of local voices such as Chuck Keeney’s and the late Judy Bonds’ who have definite ideas about what a better economic future might entail. Judy Bonds frequently used to talk about how we can “turn those bulldozers around – meaning starting to reclaim and restore economic value to the hundreds of thousands of acres of stripped and shoddily reclaimed mountaintops across West Virginia.

    And Chuck Keeney is definitely on to something in regard to Blair Mountain. Across the country, rural communities have resorted to all kinds of desperate measures to put themselves on the map and promote economic development (check out Roadside Americas’ page on giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues if you have any doubts: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/set/bunylist.html ). Logan County, on the other hand, is sitting on one of the most important historic battlefield sites in the country — something that could be a veritable Mecca for labor advocates, history buffs and regular old families like the Griswalds in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

    For my part, I’m confident that keeping a laser focus on ending mountaintop removal is the best contribution I could ever make to the future of Logan County’s economy — and I have a boat load of graphs to back it up.

  10. Steve says:

    Powder River Basin coal burns at a much lower BTU rate than eastern coal. Much of our coal is for the production of high quality steel. No metallurgical coal, no steel. What would we build with, bamboo? Stop Mountain top mining and the environmentalist will start on the under ground mines next. If we were to outlaw all mining here, what’s not to say the same ruling would not apply to mining in Wyoming? Something has to fill the voids left where the coal is removed there also. Ground water has to be affected there too. The EPA set a precedent with this ruling that may have ramifications far and wide. Any alteration to land for roads, housing or business can now be possibly stopped by the application of this same ruling. Pandoras box may have very well been opened.

  11. I’d like to associate myself with Matt Wasson’s remarks. And Ken, I think most of us would agree there is no silver bullet solution to diversify and develop economies that currently rely on coal. Sure don’t have that in my back pocket. But it’s also pretty clear that the answer is NOT increased reliance on a mining method that is designed around cutting labor costs, and is not actually creating jobs in nearby communities (http://bit.ly/oCWiWh).

  12. Matt Wasson says:

    Exactly how much metallurgical coal is mined by mountaintop removal, Steve (and I don’t mean the relatively abundant high-vol crossover coal)?

    Nobody’s questioning the need for met coal, but I don’t see how that’s related to mountaintop removal. And can you point me to any suggestion by any reputable environmental organization supporting the banning all coal mining? I’ve been running in those circles for more than a decade and have never heard anyone make any such suggestion.

    As for the EPA, they were very clear that the Spruce #1 veto was an unusual action taken in response to highly unusual circumstances — and they only did it after Arch refused to modify their mine plans to reduce the impacts in any way at all. If you have any actual evidence that EPA plans to take similar actions in regard to mine permits or anything else then you should share it. Otherwise, your arguments only serve to mislead people and contribute to a sense of paranoia and fear that has no basis in reality.

  13. Casey says:

    What is the Sierra’s Club beyond coal campaign trying to do? Doesn’t their statement “we have stopped over 150 proposed coal-fired power plants” seem to indicate their desire to ban coal mining?

    It may be simplistic but the jobs versus environment characterization seems to be accurate to those that have jobs at stake or those that depend on taxes and revenue from mining. Maybe I heard Lisa Jackson incorrectly but didn’t she state on CNN something like she was not concerned about people’s jobs?

    Every human activity has an impact on the environment. Jackson’s interuption of acceptable impact is probably different than a lot of Americans. Her statement might play heavy in the next election. From Observer’s post:


  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Casey makes a good point regarding the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign … it’s hard to understand why you would call a campaign that if you’re not out to end coal mining. You can read how they describe their goals here, http://beyondcoal.org/about-the-campaign/

    It’s easy for folks who don’t live near mountaintop removal mines to downplay the public health impacts.

    But it’s also very, very easy for national environmental groups to argue in favor of policy options that won’t affect their direct ability — now, today — to feed their families or pay their mortgages or send their kids to school. To a 50-something coal miner, notions of “clean energy economy” or “diversification” sound pretty far off and far fetched. And those sorts of ideas, until they’re made into realities, won’t help all those kids who don’t see much of a future.

    Matt’s numbers are one important piece of the public policy puzzle here. But so are what happens to people like the surface miners currently working in places like Logan and Boone counties.

    One key to finding solutions to really difficult and controversial problems is developing a better understanding of the various points of view involved.

    In my very first blog post on Coal Tattoo, I wrote this sentence, in describing how I hoped this blog would bring people together to learn about each other:

    “Perhaps the scientists and activists who understand what coal burning is doing to our climate should try to understand a little more about how a third-generation coal miner in Eastern Kentucky feels.”

    You could easily change that to:

    “Perhaps the activists who campaign so tirelessly to end mountaintop removal could benefit from spending some time with a man who works every day at one of those mining operations.”

    To me, one of the most interesting parts of the CNN piece was where Linda Dials talked about spending time in the local gymnasium with Billy Smutko, both of them working on a basketball program for local kids.

    I commend Matt for sharing his emotional reaction to the story of James and Linda Dials … it’s too bad that others in the environmental community spent so much energy attacking CNN and so little trying to understand a couple of people who see things differently than they do.


  15. Matt Wasson says:

    Excellent questions, Casey. In regard to the Sierra Club, I’m not in a position to speak for that organization, but as one small part of the “we” that has stopped more than 150 new coal-fired power plants (it took a heckuva lot more than the Sierra Club to accomplish that!), I can speak to why preventing the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power plants has been among the top priorities of hundreds of environmental and public health organizations across the country, including my own. And I can assure you that our reasons are not about stopping all coal mining, but rather about getting our country on trajectory of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.

    I see a big difference between “banning coal mining” and transitioning away from our reliance on the most polluting sources of energy, don’t you? Most recognize that we will continue to burn coal for a time while we transition to cleaner energy sources and more efficient use of energy. And there are a host of studies showing that this transition, if it occurs over a couple of decades, will be done in a way that strengthens our economy and our energy security. But building new coal-fired power plants moves us in precisely the wrong direction and it crowds out investment in energy sources that are cleaner, that create more jobs, and that ultimately will be cheaper for rate-payers.

    Please don’t believe this “EPA and environmentalists are killing jobs” business, Casey — the reason that the Appalachian coal industry is in such a rapid decline has nothing to do with the EPA, the Sierra Club or Joe Lovett — it’s because Appalachian coal can’t compete with natural gas, biomass and increasingly with wind power. With the cost of building solar power down 25% in the first half of this year alone, it won’t be long before solar power joins the ranks of energy sources that Appalachian coal can’t compete with (I believe 5 years is now the projected cross-over point — and that doesn’t even include subsidies). Utilities are only trying to build coal and nuclear plants because their shareholders make more money from those big capital investments, not because they provide cheaper power for rate-payers. Do you really think that environmentalists would have the power to stop 150 coal plants if building them would actually benefit electricity customers? If so, you have a drastically distorted sense of the influence that groups like the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices have on decision-makers.

    But as I’m sure you’re well aware, the economics of met coal are very different — and you’ll be glad to know that I haven’t heard anyone at the Sierra Club or anywhere else ever speak about banning the underground mining of met coal. Companies will have to use alternatives to underground slurry injections to dispose of processing wastes, but otherwise I don’t see a lot of barriers to a strong future for underground met coal production in Central Appalachia beyond the eventual depletion of the Pocahontas #3 and other high quality met seams.

    But that’s something that mine engineers and financeers can work out – environmental and community rights groups really don’t have a horse in the race.

  16. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Interesting discussion … I’m wondering if you’ve thought any more or come up with some answers about what constitutes “responsible mining,” if you recall this earlier discussion, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/06/10/friday-roundup-june-10-2011/ … Ken.

  17. Matt Wasson says:

    There you go stirring up trouble again, Ken – maybe you are just as bad as those nabobs of nuisance over at CNN. But seriously, “responsible mining” is a phrase that has been so abused by the Don Blankenships of the world that it automatically raises hackles of those who have been victimized by the Don Blankenships of the world — almost like putting a word that starts with “c” and rhymes with “bean” together with coal.

    But I did suggest that environmental advocates support “responsible mining practices” and it’s a suggestion I stand by. What sort of of practices are those? We can start with minimizing surface disturbance and generation of waste (i.e. underground vs surface mining). And, of course, avoiding AMD and subsidence damage is the starting place for anything you might call responsible underground mining practices – not to mention providing adequate ventilation and avoiding dust build-up. Disabling the sniffer on the continuous miner is a definite no-no.

    When it comes to surface mining, maximizing the use of highwall miners and minimizing the size of strips may cut down on the extraction efficiency, but it cuts way, way down on the environmental impact of the operations. Conducting highwall operations and disposing of spoil on existing abandoned pre-SMCRA mine benches like they do in Tennessee (eliminating a potential hazard in the process), is a thousand times better than creating new greenfield strips and dumping waste into valleys like they do in WV.

    When it comes to deshaling, dry processes are far more responsible than wet processes and don’t require impoundments or underground slurry injections.

    I could go on, but the truth is that I’m really not sure what to do with that list yet, Ken. The debate is so black and white that it’s kind of like talking about raising revenues at a Tea Party convention. These are all things that we’ll have to take a position on some day, but it does seem a little academic when the debate is still over whether cataclysmic operations like Spruce #1 should be permitted. And as long as the approach of Rahall and McKinley is to annihilate the efficacy of the entire Clean Water Act through bills like HR 2018, I’m afraid we’ll have to stick to the black and white messaging as well.

    But I’m sure things will get better under President Bachmann.

  18. Bob Kincaid says:

    It’s hard to be subtle about coal when you know the facts about it.

    This year, in excess of forty thousand people will die from coal-created illnesses. A smoker chooses to pick up the cigarette. A drunk chooses to pick up the bottle. People killed at a distance by coal have absolutely NO choice in the matter. Consider the case of Elbert Jovante Woods, dead a year now, from breathing the filth that coal, and its workers put into the air: http://www.wlwt.com/r/24610979/detail.html

    What choice does a child have whose organs are rendered toxic by pollutants put into her body so a coal company can have a profit and Mr. Dials and others like him can have a job?

    What kind of country prioritizes a man’s job over the very lives of its children?

    These are certainly hard questions, but they merit our consideration. How many lives constitute “acceptable losses” or “unavoidable collateral damage?” When can we get a straight answer to that question from CNN (which has taken MILLIONS of dollars from the coal industry for advertising) or Arch or Alpha or Manchin or Rahall or Capito or McKinley or Tomblin or any one of the multitude of cheerleaders for mountaintop removal?

    Don’t we DESERVE that answer?

  19. Bo Webb says:

    Normally I don’t care to discuss jobs when the subject is mountaintop removal because I believe jobs versus ending mtr is a distraction from the ever growing evidence that exposure to mtr is killing people. But I do have ideas about jobs and our future. Ken, is it not our elected representatives duty to serve the people, and isn’t job creation a big part of that duty? West Virginia politicians have been riding the coal train for so long they don’t seem to have a clue as to how to create new jobs. Being a former business owner I learned a long time ago that putting all your eggs in one basket is not very smart business practice. In order to create new jobs one must be willing to look beyond the status quo. Renewable energy is the future. That is a fact that is being proven everyday across this country. Since you have asked how do we move forward, here is an idea that seems attainable to me that would create jobs and boost state revenue. First, create legislation that requires electric companies to provide a certain percentage of renewable energy to their customers. The percentage they provide is determined by the fact that the renewable source must be produced in the state of WV. This then opens the door to create legislation that will give tax incentives to the renewable energy industry to locate in WV, and they will come because they know business is guaranteed. Manufacturing plants will be built to produce wind mills (jobs) and solar panels. (jobs) Next, offer low interest loans to home owners for the installation of solar panels on their roofs, creating more manufacturing jobs, suppliers, installers and maintenance workers. Windmill manufacturers will need a lot of steel. Let’s fire those steel plants up in Wheeling and elsewhere (more jobs) with met coal that we mine underground (more jobs) here and place these home-made windmills on top of our mountains. (more jobs) In a sense we create a situation where we take advantage of using the underground coal we have to save the mountains we have, while at the same time creating a thriving diversified growing economy.

  20. EnviroSci says:


    You make some good points about “responsible mining”. From my perspective, the small to medium size coal companies seem to want to do things in an “environmentally responsible manner”. The larger ones seem to just want to get in, get the coal, and then do the absolute minimal mitigation they can get by with. Also, a lot of the Pocahontas seams (i.e. met grade coal) are mined by surface methods-although not necessarily mountain top removal –as it is defined by law. Also a lot o companies are beginning to recognized the fact that project with valley fills are not getting a lot of “warm and fuzzies” from either the Corps or the EPA.

    One of the main problems is that SMCRA essentially says get in, get all the coal you can, reclaim the land, and never come back (I am, of course, paraphrasing). The Clean Water Act, which is what the Corps and EPA are required to enforce, says a permittee must “avoid and minimize”. I know of one project where the company wanted to drag-line an area and would recover nearly 100 percent of the reserves. The problem was that the impacts to jurisdictional waters were huge. After the project was re-designed, there were no permanent impacts to jurisdictional waters but only ~35% of the coal was to be mined. This flies in the face of SMCRA, but the reduction in pacts fit nicely into the avoidance and minimization requirement of the CWA. One of the comments from EPA was that they were concerned that the remaining 65% of the coal left could be mined in the future thus destroying the reclamation and mitigation efforts. I see this “conflict” between SCMRA and CWA nearly every day.

    A lot of companies are using highwall mining as a secondary recovery technique. A highwall miner can leave a lot of coal in the ground (called sterilization of the resource). Also, more and more companies are recognizing that re-mining a pre-SMCRA site can be a good thing. I have seen a lot of projects recently proposing to do this.

    Point of all this: there is some “responsible mining” at least being attempted, but that doesn’t make headlines or new specials.

  21. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks to Bo … who actually jumped in an engaged and offered some serious suggestions on diversifying the economy — rather than resorting to standard sound bites, and to demonizing folks he disagrees with.

    Comments like his, and discussions like Matt and EnviroSci offered regarding what might or might not constitute “responsible mining” add a lot to this blog.

    It’s a refreshing change from cheerleaders on one side or another who show absolutely no interest in understanding a point of view other than their own.

    I think that’s probably enough discussion on this post for now. Thanks, folks.