Ten years ago today, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II issued a landmark ruling on mountaintop removal coal mining.
In short, Judge Haden declared that a mining “buffer zone” rule prohibited coal operators from burying all but the smallest streams with waste rock and dirt from strip mines. You can go back and read his ruling here.
A couple of passages from his 49-page opinion and order still stick in my head today:
When valley fills are permitted in intermittent and perennial streams, they destroy those stream segments. The normal flow and gradient of the stream is now buried under millions of cubic yards of excess spoil waste material, an extremely adverse effect.
If there were fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration.
Under a valley fill, the water quantity of the stream becomes zero. Because there is no stream, there is no water quality.
When coal industry officials and supporters went berserk (then-West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood called Haden’s decision “one of the darkest days in the history of our state“), the judge suspended his ruling, saying:
… The court believes it preferable to attempt to defuse invective and diminish irrational fears so that reasoned decisions can be made with all deliberate speed, but with distractions minimized.
Seems like coal industry officials and some of our politicians (especially Gov. Joe Manchin) might want to re-read that, given the events and the rhetoric of the last week or so.
And revisiting Judge Haden’s ruling — and all that has come after it in the last decade — might be worth it today. The very issue Haden took on — how the stream buffer zone rule applies to mountaintop removal — is still not resolved. More importantly, elected officials and regulators in Appalachia have dodged making real and difficult decisions about this mining practice for years, pushing all sides of the issue much closer to not just unpleasant shouting matches, but violent altercations.