Coal Tattoo

Bullpush Mountain, public health and EPA attacks

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This is how Bullpush Mountain, said to be West Virginia’s first mountaintop removal operation, looked back in 1998 when it was featured in the Gazette’s Mining the Mountains series. Photo by Lawrence Pierce.

It’s been a long time since I wrote about Bullpush Mountain, when the Gazette exposed major flaws (which continue today) in the permitting of mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia. Back then, we wrote:

Bullpush Mountain isn’t a mountain anymore. It’s a flat, grassy meadow that stands out among the wooded hills along the Fayette-Kanawha County line.

More than 25 years ago, Cannelton Industries Inc. chopped the top off Bullpush to get at the coal underneath. The operation, started in 1970, was the first mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.

Cannelton officials promised that if they flattened out the land, they could more easily develop it. The company drew up plans to turn Bullpush into a brand-new town, complete with churches, schools, shops and a hospital.

None of that ever happened. No schools. No churches or shopping centers.

Unfortunately, Bullpush Mountain wasn’t alone:

Across the Southern West Virginia coalfields, mountaintop removal mining is turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows – nobody knows how many – into flat pastures and rolling hayfields.

A new coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building “West Virginia’s Own Field of Dreams.”

“Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, ‘Field of Dreams,’ if we build the sites, they will come,” the industry ads say. “And when they come, they will bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians.”

A continuing Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that these predictions have not come true and that, without major regulatory changes, they aren’t likely to come true anytime soon.

Coal industry backers point to a few small mountaintop removal jobs that were turned into homes for the new state prison, a high school and an air strip.

But most coal companies plan to leave giant mountaintop removal mines as flattened-out fields, according to a three-month review of state Division of Environmental Protection mining permits.

In last evening, we learned that the mountaintop removal operation that was performed on Bullpush Mountain wasn’t alone in another respect — it’s among the sites across our state’s coalfields that are illegally polluting our streams. According to this new lawsuit by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club:

Today a coalition of concerned groups took action to protect water ways impacted by the inactive and allegedly reclaimed Bullpush Mountain mine in Kanawha and Fayette Counties in southwestern West Virginia. Water monitoring conducted by the groups has revealed that the mine is still discharging dangerous levels of selenium. The groups’ lawsuit alleges that the current land owner, Boone East Development Company, has violated the Clean Water Act due to unpermitted discharges of selenium and conductivity from the “reclaimed” Bullpush Mountain site.

Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said:

It’s past time for all involved to recognize that ‘reclamation’ means more than just putting the land back in some stable and usable fashion.  Assuring that reclaimed mine sites don’t pollute our water resources continues to be a responsibility of the land owner – whether that be the coal company that mined in the first place or whoever maintains ownership after the mining is done.

Interestingly, this suit comes just on the heels of yesterday’s briefing in Washington, D.C., by various scientists and activists, talking about the growing body of literature indicating connections between serious health problems — including cancer and birth defects — and living near mountaintop removal mining operations. According to the group Appalachian Community Health Emergency:

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) hosted four leading scientists for Senate and House briefings on the environmental and health impacts of destructive mountaintop removal (MTR) mining in Appalachia.

The scientists – Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, Dr. Emily Bernhardt of Duke University, Dr. Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University, and Dr. Melissa Ahern of Washington State University – presented a range and depth of peer-reviewed scientific studies and data that show severe water degradation and community health problems in mountaintop removal mining areas.

Among some leaders in Washington, the science of mountaintop removal’s impacts on public health gets far less attention than something like the efforts of GOP House leaders to manufacture a scandal out of the Office of Surface Mining’s rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule. And here in West Virginia, issues like the continued pollution from mines like Bullpush and the potential impacts of coal mining on public health take a back seat from public officials and the media to things like yesterday’s announcement by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that he plans to join in a lawsuit over EPA’s efforts to reduce toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants:

This is a shining example of the EPA, an unelected federal bureaucracy, making policy without regard to the economic impact of its decisions.  I will continue to fight for West Virginia jobs and against the EPA’s ideologically driven, job-killing agenda.

Gov. Tomblin’s release said,  the EPA  rule “has already caused electric utilities to announce plans to shut down coal-fired power plants in West Virginia.” But it made no mention of the other factors lead are cutting into state coal production, and are expected to drastically reduce Southern West Virginia production over the next decade … and I must have missed the part of the release where the governor spelled out his plan for dealing with that inevitable decline.