from Coal Country: Above, a mountaintop removal operation
near Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman,
Tearing Up Appalachia
Big Coal fouls more than just the air—while the Bush administration
looks the other way
By Brian Vanneman
Freda Williams’ rural West Virginia home is located less
than a mile downhill from the Brushy Fork dam spanning the Clearfork
Creek Valley. Unlike most other dams, this one does not block a
river or generate electric power. Brushy Fork holds eight billion
gallons of coal sludge—a thick, black, tar-like liquid that
contains heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, and is the byproduct
of the coal mining that takes place throughout southern West Virginia.
Over the past several years, coal’s unhealthy impact on America’s
air and water has received much attention from the Sierra Club and
the mainstream media. Coal-fired power plants emit 40 percent of
the nation’s carbon dioxide—the primary cause of global
warming—and mercury—a hazardous pollutant estimated
to endanger the healthy development of more than 600,000 children
born every year in the United States. Yet, as reported by everyone
from The New York Times to Time magazine, the Bush administration
has done everything in its power to help Big Coal.
But coal is not only a health hazard once burned. As Freda Williams
and others in the coal-producing areas of Appalachia know, the new
generation of coal mining techniques threatens its neighbors with
sludge dam breaks, flooding, unsafe tap water, and the loss of the
forested ridges and valleys that have made the region home for generations.
In coal mining parlance, the barrier near Williams’ home is
the Brushy Creek "impoundment." Williams prefers the more
direct "slurry dam." The dam is one of several hundred
in the region that are the product of a new and more environmentally
damaging form of mining that has become prevalent in the coal industry
since the 1980s: mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop removal is one industry term that is just what it sounds
like. Mining companies, like Brushy Fork operators Marfork Coal
and its parent company Massey Energy, blow off the tops and sides
of mountains to get at the coal buried underneath. Where "deep
mining," using deep shafts and many laborers, was the norm,
the vastly increased power of mining machines now makes it possible
to dig and sort through tons of soil already loosened by explosives.
Topsoil and trees are thrown over the sides of the denuded mountains
into adjacent stream beds and become "valley fill," while
the once forested ridges are transformed into terraced moonscapes.
Coal is separated from the soil using a chemical process, and the
unwanted slurry—a combination of chemicals, soil, water, and
coal remnants—is then dumped into impoundments.
In October 2000, an impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, broke
and released a 300-million-gallon flood of coal slurry, causing
greater damage than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989; the EPA called
it the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the eastern
United States. Miraculously, no lives were lost—but fish and
wildlife were killed, homes damaged, and the drinking water in many
affected towns is still considered unsafe due to high levels of
mercury and arsenic.
Shortly after the Martin County spill, the federal Mine Safety and
Health Administration (MSHA) began an investigation into the conditions
surrounding the incident, and Massey Energy, the impoundment’s
operator. Under the leadership of Jack Spadaro, a MSHA expert with
30 years of experience, the investigation was shaping up to be a
hard-nosed critique of Massey’s failure to maintain a safe
But when the Bush administration arrived in Washington, things changed
quickly. David Lauriski, a former executive at Energy West Mining,
became the new head of MSHA. He appointed a new lead investigator
to the Martin County team, which was encouraged to sign a gentle
reprimand that found Massey at fault on two criminal counts rather
than the eight that Spadaro sought. Spadaro refused to put his signature
on the report and quit the investigation team.
Despite clashes with his new superiors, Spadaro stuck it out at
MSHA. But in the summer of 2003, agency managers put him on administrative
leave, a move that suggested his job termination was imminent. The
decision was ostensibly made because of several minor charges including
overuse of his agency credit card and allowing a non-employee to
spend several days in a government dorm.
Spadaro’s conflict with MSHA management is one of several
recent events that have served as a lightning rod for the energy
of Sierra Club organizers, volunteers, and community members.
"Locals have really appreciated the our commitment to mining
issues," says Anna Sale, a field organizer who began working
for the Club in Charleston last summer. Another organizer, Bill
Price, works under the auspices of the Club’s Environmental
Justice program to build bridges with community groups, and empower
them to create change.
After learning about Spadaro’s firing, Sale, Price, and Club
volunteers organized campaigns to demand his reinstatement. They
encouraged community members to write letters to MSHA and sought
publicity from local and national media outlets. When CBS’
60 Minutes aired a damning report on the government’s conduct
in April, they filmed Price speaking at a Charleston rally.
Sierra Club’s field representatives in the “mountain
state”: Bill Price and Anna Sale.
Spadaro’s ouster and the susequent coverup is widely perceived
to be politically motivated and beneficial for Massey Energy in
particular and the coal industry in general. While the state of
Kentucky fined Massey for $3.25 million, the company’s federal
fines were ultimately reduced to $5,600. The Bush administration
and its appointees in the mining safety administration are indebted
and linked to the coal industry. For example, James "Buck"
Harless, a Massey board member, raised $275,000 for the Bush campaign
in 2000, while the industry as a whole gave $2.7 million.
Sale feels a degree of satisfaction from the Club’s work.
Spadaro is appealing his supervisors’ decision to place him
on leave. "And the Labor Department knows people are watching,"
Throughout the winter, the Club’s West Virginia organizers
turned their focus to stopping another behind-the-scenes Bush administration
bureaucratic maneuver. The Club’s target was an Interior Department
proposal to change the "stream buffer zone rule." The
1983 rule restricts coal companies from depositing valley fill—the
soil and rock displaced by leveled mountaintops—in adjacent
valleys. Valley fill does not contain heavy metals and chemicals
in the same concentration as slurry, but it does bury watersheds,
contaminate rivers and water supplies, and allow mountaintop removal
to continue unchecked.
"Massey and other coal companies had been disregarding the
rule for years," says Sale. "But they wanted the law to
be struck from the books in order to decisively end the legal basis
for protests against mountaintop removal and valley fill."
By January 6, when the stream buffer zone public comment period
was initially scheduled to end, the government had received 80,000
comments demanding that the rule continue to protect Appalachian
streams. But the very next day, Interior published a new draft of
the stream buffer zone rule. "I doubt very much that they read
all those comments," says Sale. The new draft asks mining companies
to limit their impact on fish and wildlife in stream valleys "to
the extent possible." As Sierra Club Executive director Carl
Pope points out, "there is no scientific way to monitor a ‘to
the extent possible’ provision."
Despite mountaintop removal’s effect on Appalachia, Club representative
Price offers a tempered view of coal’s future in the region.
It has provided an economic base for the region for generations,
but mountaintop removal employs far fewer workers than deep mining.
"The bottom line is we must demand that mining be done in a
responsible manner," he says. "That means no more mountaintop
removal. Then we must transition to a more diversified economy that
includes more small business, different energy sources, and tourism.
And coal actually hurts that process, because who wants to vacation
in a state where a quarter of the mountains are lopped off? Who
wants to to do business in a place where you can’t drink the
To find out more about mountaintop removal mining, and what you
can do to stop it, visit sierraclub.org/appalachia.
|The Sierra Club is pleased to be a major
sponsor of The Appalachians: America’s First and Last
Frontier, a documentary that explores the history, music, culture,
and landscape of the region. It will air on PBS this Fall—check
your local listings for times, or visit sierraclub.org/appalachia.
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