One of the most interesting things about yesterday’s mountaintop removal ruling — the latest industry win at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — was the reaction to it from Alpha Natural Resources. In an e-mail statement, Alpha spokesman Ted Pile had this to say about the decision:
… We were very confident in our position that the Corps of Engineers and our permitting department had worked tirelessly to develop a permit that complies with the law and thoroughly protects the environment, while allowing the mine to operate. We were pleased today to have our position affirmed by the 4th Circuit in a well-reasoned, unanimous opinion.
It’s rewarding to us to see that the courts have multiple times cast aside the unfounded arguments of a small number of special interest groups who wish to stop coal at all costs. Who wins in this ruling are really the communities of Appalachia that are able to preserve high-paying mining jobs and enjoy the economic benefits that come from a properly run, well regulated business.
There are several things in there that are worth unpacking a little bit, as we try to understand what the 4th Circuit’s ruling about Alpha subsidiary Highland Mining’s Highland Reylas Surface Mine means, especially in the wake of two big losses for the coal industry in mountaintop removal cases in the D.C. Circuit and in the 6th Circuit.
First, there’s the way Alpha characterized the citizen groups — the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Sierra Club and Coal River Mountain Watch — as “a small number of special interest groups who wish to stop coal at all costs.” That’s not really too far from the way Massey CEO Don Blankenship would try to minimize and marginalize citizens who are concerned about the impacts of large-scale surface mining on Appalachian forests, streams and communities (see for example here and here).
And here I thought that the Alpha Natural Resources buyout of Massey Energy two years ago was going to bring us a new day in the way coal companies deal with stakeholders … Remember what Alpha-backer Rep. Nick J. Rahall told us about the Alpha-Massey deal:
I think with new ownership now in Southern West Virginia, that we’ll see a reaching out by the companies to try to work with these residents ahead of time, hopefully, in the permitting process, or before the process even starts, to try to work out arrangements with them to ensure that they’re not placed in harm’s way.
If you read Alpha’s 2011 corporate “Sustainability Report,” there’s a great quote in there from CEO Kevin Crutchfield:
We need to be responsive to our communities and stakeholders. Listening is an act of respect.
And the report text itself says:
Our commitment to sustainability stems from our culture of Running Right, Leading Right and Living Right. This culture drives how we operate our business – which includes a commitment to always Running Right that ensures all of our employees make it home safely at the end of every day. It also drives how we approach the people whose lives we touch. Alpha has many stakeholders, and we know our decisions impact them in a variety of ways. To succeed, we need to operate with respect and attention to these stakeholders. We call this Leading Right. And finally, we seek to be the example we want to follow – in every act, every conversation, every moment, both within our company and as members of the communities where we live and work. For us, this is Living Right.
Does trying to minimize and marginalize four of the most active and engaged environmental and citizen groups in the region really constitute “being responsive” to communities and stakeholders? Does it show much respect for people like Cindy Rank, the mining chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, who has been focused on trying to reduce mining’s impact on coal communities for far longer than there’s been an Alpha Natural Resources? Is that really “running right”?
More importantly, there’s this other part of the Alpha statement about the “unfounded arguments” about mountaintop removal’s impacts, raised by the citizen groups in this case.
Let’s get some things straight about this. First, the growing body of scientific research certainly doesn’t show that concerns about mountaintop removal’s impact on the environment are “unfounded.” The science, for example, shows that mountaintop removal is having pervasive and irreversible impacts on the local environment. The science shows a growing concern about why people who live near mountaintop removal mining face greater risks of serious illnesses, including cancer and birth defects. And one of the most recent peer-reviewed papers outlines all of the broad impacts — beyond just water quality issues — from mountaintop removal.