Bullpush Mountain, public health and EPA attacks

April 17, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

22 Responses to “Bullpush Mountain, public health and EPA attacks”

  1. Mark says:

    I wasnt aware any new coal-fired plants were on the drawing board. Which projects have been cancelled because of the EPA?

  2. DaJuan Hayes says:

    Well we might not have shopping centers and schools and churches on those old mountaintop removal sites … but we DO have lots of those cute cartoon insects!

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I believe the governor was referring to existing plants being shut down, not new plants being halted. Ken.

  4. Keryn says:

    Tomblin fails to acknowledge that high electricity costs in West Virginia caused by the cost of coal (not the cost of burning coal) used to produce almost all electricity in the state causes more job loss than anything the EPA could dream up. When electric prices rise, it is felt by all businesses in West Virginia, not just Century Aluminum or other large, industrial users. Paying more for overhead means cuts must occur somewhere, like payroll. However, Tomblin signed APCO’s consumer debt bond bill which will enable the company to mortgage their unreimbursed cost of fuel from 2008 (plus a bunch of other debt APCO wants to shed) over a ten year period. This fuel debt is still on the books, despite yearly rate increases designed to recover it over the past 3 years, because the cost of the coal used as fuel to produce electricity has continued to skyrocket. No relief is in sight, just a hiding of rate increases by calling them “consumer rate relief bonds.” These bonds are the equivalent of using a credit card to buy your weekly groceries and then paying for them over a 10 year period.

    The utilities and their elected servants resisted legislation to institute least cost planning this year. Least cost planning would require the utilities to plan for the lowest system cost to supply customers. However there was great trepidation that if a real analysis was done and made public, coal-fired electricity wouldn’t be the cheapest option for West Virginia’s electric consumers. Instead, West Virginians are subject to ever increasing electric rates to subsidize the coal industry. Electric rate increases caused solely by the EPA are fiction.

  5. Bob Kincaid says:


    A minor correction: we “activists” didn’t do any briefing in DC. We were merely observers. The events were strictly and solely based upon the independently produced, peer-reviewed science work done by the four scientists referenced. It speaks for itself.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment, as always.

    As regular readers know, several of the scientists — whose work I respect very much — also have served as expert witnesses for environmental/citizen groups in litigation over mountaintop removal permits. I say that not to criticize them for that work, or to dismiss their science, just to further clarify things.

    And, as far as I understand it, this was a closed-door briefing as opposed to a public session that the press could attend. If that is not accurate, please feel free to let me know. So the public doesn’t know exactly what happened.


  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bob, all,

    As I re-read my reply to Bob, I thought perhaps I should clarify or amplify.

    I wasn’t suggesting that something improper happened at this briefing — or that such closed-door briefings of congressional staffers and members don’t happen all the time on a whole range of issues. They do. Often, they lead to more public discussions, such as formal hearings of the sort this blog has several times might be interesting to have concerning the mountaintop removal health impact science.

    My only point, not made very clearly at all, is that citizen groups attended this briefing, and they issued a press release to announce it — but then they want to almost disclaim any real involvement, perhaps out of concern that the industry will seize on that to try to discredit the good work of these fine scientists.

    While that’s a reasonable concern on their part, it’s silly from where I sit for these groups — citizens, activists, whatever they’d prefer to call themselves — to attend and issue a press release about the briefing and then try to distance themselves from the whole thing.

    Anyway, thanks again Bob for your comment, and my apologies for a hasty response.


  8. Steve says:

    I remember years ago, a promise was made of a four lane highway from Charleston to Montgomery and then all the way to Gauley Bridge. It was said at the time it would open up the valley to more commerce. Communities in between would benefit with increased population, jobs and of course better schools.

    Just like the dream for reclaimed strip mines, it never happened. But why not?, one might ask. Technology reared it’s ugly head. Coal began to be mined more efficiently with less people. Whole towns and communities shrunk or completely disappeared. Thousands of families left the state in the early eighties, never to return. White water rafting just couldn’t keep up.

    It seemed we didn’t need that four lane after all. Just like we don’t need all those reclaimed surface mines turned into shopping malls or housing developments.

    As for this new fangled pollutant conductivity, it would seem that should also be a problem where major fill are used during road construction. But who am I to argue that point.

    But I will tell ya what is really doing well around and on Bullpush Mountain, wildlife. Deer, bear, turkey and coyote are sure doing OK in that area. And
    if Keryn is right about those high power bills, might even be a ripe place for one of them there wind farms in the near future.

  9. Bo Webb says:

    Just to be clear. ACHE sent out a press release “after” the briefing announcing we were there. We learned about the briefing, attended it, and reported on it. The briefing itself was not a closed door briefing. As I observed, anyone could have walked into the room, sat down, and listened. I may be wrong, but I am of the impression that congressional briefings are not normally announced. ACHE did not participate in these briefings.

  10. unbiased2 says:

    Cindy Rank and Ken allude to the fact changes in regulations would make it more likely that development on these “field” amid forests would be developed. These changes would ostensibly release the owner of the land from treating discharges if they did not create it and has no financial connection with the party who did.
    I appreciate their honesty but why would they then continue to rant about and deplore the industry’s failed development predictions.
    That’s like kicking a dead horse and shows arguing in bad faith.

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    That’s part of the point — the briefing wasn’t “announced,” so no one who wasn’t secretly told about it could possibly have known to walk in the door and listen.

    For example, was anyone from the National Mining Association invited to attend? Were they invited to bring their own expert witness to take part in the discussion?

    Sure, this is the way congressional briefings often work. But I wonder how citizen groups would respond if they learned Republicans in the House had such a briefing with the NMA’s expert witness and didn’t invite Dr. Hendryx as well?

    Frankly, the protestations from folks about how this was reported make me thing there’s perhaps more of a story here than I initially thought.


  12. Bo Webb says:

    We were not invited. We simply heard about it. If it was a secret we wouldn’t have known, we attended. I don’t think it’s our duty to call the Nat’l Mining Assc and tell them. I’m sure they have heard of briefings many times and attended and never called us up to tell us. I don’t know if these committees invited them or not, maybe they did. I’m not privy to who they invite. I did hear that Mr. Rahall was invited way before we found out about it, so in a sense the Coal Association was invited.

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    If you’re intent on continuing this, OK … I’ll ask the obvious question:

    You say that, “We were not invited. We simply heard about it.”

    From whom did you hear about it?

    Thanks, Ken.

  14. Catherine Moore says:

    Hi All – I’m interested in the history of Bullpush as the “first” MTR site in WV because of another project I am doing. Does anyone have a source for this? Thanks!

  15. Bo Webb says:

    I’m not trying to continue anything, just clarifying the facts. nothing more needs to be said

  16. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for the comment and question … Bullpush Mountain was touted by WVDEP officials and the mining industry as the “first” mountaintop removal operation during a tour of the site — mentioned in our article, http://wvgazette.com/News/MiningtheMountains/200803100636 back in 1998. I believe that was also mentioned in the “Greenlands” article that is quoted in my story. I can look and see if I still have that article in my files, but I can’t find it today.


  17. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Catherine, all —

    Just to prove what a terrible pack-rat I am … I did a quick check and found this, http://media.wvgazette.com/static/coal%20tattoo/BullpushGreenlands.pdf … It’s a .pdf of the cover page and the section about Bullpush Mountain from that issue of Greenlands, which was the magazine previously published for years by the old West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association.

    It refers to this area as the “oldest” mountaintop removal site in West Virginia.

    If you use this in print, I’d appreciate the Gazette getting some credit as a secondary source.


  18. Eric Autenreith says:

    Ken, you pack a lot of issues into these articles.

    What a shame so much resources have to be spent by citizens to enforce laws that our government failed to enforce or willfully overlooked because of some special favors made to friends.

    The public should be thankful for the legal efforts by West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

    I have wondered why the governor never gets charged with crimes against humanity, seeing as how he- as head of the enforcement agencies- seems complicit in the act of harming the environment and the people he has sworn to protect. But lawyers tell me that if the harm is “incidental” and not “intentional” then there is no case.

    So as along as Tomblin and other lawmakers can claim ignorance or say” I doubt that!” about the health studies showing harm to the people i guess they can continue to call residents’ deaths and birth defects just incidental collateral damage…. “I didn’t mean for that to happen… how could we know?” Best that they avoid seeing these science reports…

    And again the WV governor sues the EPA in an effort to take away air and water quality protections and further sicken and kill- according to the research- his citizens! What a racket.

    Re the GOP manufactured scandal about the stream buffer zone rule getting more notice than the peer reviewed health studies: It goes to show how the truthfulness of the message often is not always as important as the tone, who says it and how it is marketed around.

    Re the scientists and activists. I’m not sure if the scientists were being lumped in there with activists or not.

    Either way, it is a dilemma for scientists- those often with the best understanding of the natural world- how to advocate for the truth without being cast as a biased activist for some adjacent issue… perhaps similar to regular people being called activists, in a disparaging way and “accused” of bias for advocating for and printing the sometimes inconvenient truth.

    Nice that you are a packrat and can continue to give us context and perspective on all these things.

  19. Scott14 says:

    Mrs Rank writes, ” 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.” Would you also place housing developments on reclaimed surface mine property in this category?
    If so, who would be responsible for the fines, Individual lot and house owners or a Housing Association? Wouldn’t they be as responsible for a clean up as a large land owner or coal company?

  20. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I’m not burdened with having attended law school, so I’m not sure how the law would view home owners or a housing association in this situation. I do know that it’s not an unusual thing for state and federal regulatory agencies to go after homeowner groups that operate their own small waste treatment operations when those facilities don’t comply with water pollution limits.

    But Congress passed a separate law for surface mining back in 1977, which created different obligations and responsibilities for those operations regarding reclamation of land and water after they finish mining. The industry tried hard to avoid having such a law, and tried hard to have it declared unconstitutional after it was passed — but it’s on the books and shouldn’t laws that are on the books be followed?

    We’ve had several comments from industry folks trying to deflect this discussion into one about other sorts of activities, and try cry about how everyone is out to get coal — I’d love to see just one person from the coal industry comment that if an operation like this one continues years after mining is done to violate water quality limits, the operators of the mine that was there should do something about it and be held responsible.

    Anyone? Anyone?


  21. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Eric, all,

    Let’s go easy on throwing around phrases like “crimes against humanity,” to avoid the sort of stuff that we saw from GOP Senate candidate John Raese yesterday, http://wvgazette.com/News/201204190202 .

    More comments that take us down the road toward that sort of thing will not be published, as they simply don’t lead to any sort of reasonable discussion of the issues surrounding the coal industry…thanks in advance for your cooperation.


  22. Catherine Moore says:

    Ken — Many thanks for the information. I’ll take care of the attribution.

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