By VIVIAN STOCKMAN
Special to The Progressive Populist
As an adult returning to your hometown, "You expect your childhood home to be gone. You don't expect your childhood mountain to be gone!" That is, unless you live in the coalfields of southern West Virginia.
Janice Nease's hometown, Red Warrior, W.V., is just about gone. Her daddy was a coal miner. He and his neighbors lost their jobs to mechanization in the coal mines. Fifty families once lived in Red Warrior. Now six houses remain.
Janice was lucky to get out of Red Warrior when she did. She didn't have to watch the coal companies blow up the mountains and fill in the valleys all around her hometown.
In many southern West Virginia counties, mountains are being leveled in a mining process known as mountaintop removal. Coal companies first bulldoze the mountains' forests, which are some of the most biologically diverse woodlands on Earth. The topsoil is removed, and then the underlying rock is blasted away, in explosions ten to 100 times more powerful than the bomb blast at the Oklahoma City federal building.
Next, huge draglines -- up to 20 stories tall -- and gargantuan dump trucks remove the rubble to get to thin, multiple layers of low-sulfur coal. The draglines cost about $100 million and for profits' sake, must stay in continual operation. These machines scalp up to 600 feet, sometimes more, off the tops of mountains.
In a process called valley fill, the "overburden" is dumped into valleys and streams, in piles that can be two miles long and over 100 feet high. At least 750 miles of the state's streams have been buried by valley fills. In some counties, according to CNN, 20 percent of the land mass has been mined by mountaintop removal. So far, about 300,000 acres of hardwood forest have been destroyed, leaving scars astronauts can see from outer space.
Coal companies, the United Mine Workers and supporting politicians say the flattened landscapes are good for economic development. They contend that the flat places are great spots for jails, shopping malls, airports and schools -- never mind the lack of population and infrastructure in the mined areas. So far, the majority of the land is "reclaimed" with one-quarter inch of topsoil and seeded for "wildlife habitat" with grasses that not even cattle will eat.
Another pro-mountaintop removal argument is that coal extraction provides jobs and prosperity. High-paying coal jobs (around $50,000 a year; average annual income in West Virginia is about $25,000) are welcome in a region where unemployment hovers between ten and 15 percent.
Because coal companies are replacing people with machines, those jobs are dwindling, despite record setting levels of coal production. One monster dragline can replace over 100 workers. The entire coal industry, including deep mines and other forms of surface mining besides mountaintop removal, accounts for three percent of all jobs in the state, down from nine and a half percent in 1979.
Figures from the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association show that in 1970, 45,261 were employed statewide in extracting 143 million tons of coal. In 1990 it was 28,876 jobs, with 171 million tons mined. By 1998 there were 18,635 jobs and 176 million tons of coal mined.
According to U.S. Mine and Health Safety Administration data, mountaintop removal now employs about 2,300 people in West Virginia. Despite coal company claims of providing prosperity, the counties where the most coal is mined have some of the highest poverty rates and some of the worst infrastructure and school systems in the state.
"Look at Whitesville," Janice said. "There are eight or ten mines around that town. In terms of business, it's becoming a ghost town. Where is the prosperity? Coal is the greatest threat to prosperity in West Virginia. Coal never has and never will fulfill its promises."
Nonetheless, many miners vehemently support mountaintop removal. "It boils down to good-paying jobs," miner David Crawford told the Charleston Daily Mail. "Without that, it's hard to educate your children, feed your family -- just everything."
Other coalfield residents want mountaintop removal stopped. On their front porches, they used to hear birdsong and rushing streams. Now they endure the around-the-clock noise of heavy machinery and blasting. The blasting damages their homes, dries up their wells and leaves a haze of dust everywhere. Parents hesitate to let their kids play outside because blasted rocks can fly hundreds of feet. Some sell their homes to the coal companies, but others refuse to leave. They watch as their communities die, as the lush landscape turns into a barren moonscape.
Complaints to the state Division of Environmental Protection led nowhere. As coal companies have applied for ever larger mountaintop removal permits (the largest request, now on hold, is for a 3,200 acre mine), the agency has rubber stamped approval of the operations.
Citizens also found it useless to complain to state politicians and to Republican Governor Cecil Underwood, a former coal company executive. According to the West Virginia People's Election Reform Coalition, Underwood received over $500,000 from coal interests for his 1996 campaign and his inaugural. Of all special interests, coal donated the most money to winning state legislators in the 1996 election.
Fed up with state inaction, citizens turned to environmental groups. The Huntington, W.V.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organized actions including trips to mountaintop removal sites for reporters and students, two large rallies at the state capitol, protests and a 490-mile "Walk for the Mountains." OVEC sued to have the DEP chief removed from office because his appointment violated part of the Clean Water Act that says regulators can't have recently come from the industry they regulate. That chief resigned, but the governor had another coal industry executive waiting to fill the vacancy.
In July 1998, ten coalfield residents and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy sued the DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing mountaintop removal permits in violation of federal laws.
By June 1999, the litigants were working out details in a settlement of many points in the lawsuit, but one sticky issue would go to trial. On October 20, Charles H. Haden, the conservative, Republican federal judge trying the case, ruled that valley fills in streams that flow more than six months of the year are illegal under state and federal mining rules and portions of the Clean Water Act.
It was a stunning victory for opponents of mountaintop removal, but most only felt a moment of elation. They figured the coal slurry would soon hit the fan.
Indeed, DEP lawyers immediately said they would file an appeal. Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association said the judge's ruling "will bring to a halt any kind of construction activity not just in West Virginia, but across the country."
The next morning the governor called October 20 "the bleakest day in recent West Virginia history." (Maybe 1972 isn't recent to the Gov. That year, 125 people died in a flood on Buffalo Creek when a coal waste dam burst. The disaster led to the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.) Citing potential "devastating" revenue losses from coal severance taxes, Underwood ordered an immediate freeze on hiring, out of state travel and capital expenditures for state agencies. He ordered the agencies to develop plans for a ten percent budget cut, beginning next year.
The DEP chief halted all valley fills in ongoing mountaintop removal operations, even though the judge's ruling applied only to future permits. Days later, aghast at the prospect of having to follow the law, coal companies began laying off workers.
Critics accused the coal industry and its minions in elected office of creating a false economic crisis to whip up public sympathy against the judge's ruling. West Virginia's Secretary of State Ken Hechler said Underwood was "deliberately inciting the public with inaccurate and inflammatory statements."
West Virginia's entire congressional delegation, ostensibly all Democrats, joined in the chorus predicting economic doom for the state as a result of the ruling, although no state or federal agency had produced any studies of how the ruling would affect mountaintop removal mining. They said they would offer a "legislative remedy."
(In early November, the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail did the studies for the agencies. The newspaper found that, under the ruling, coal companies could still bury miles of streams that flow only during rain or snow melt. They could still create large valley fills in the uppermost reaches of stream systems.)
That "legislative remedy" was a rider, most aggressively promoted by West Virginia's senior senator, Robert C. Byrd. The public has not seen the language in the rider, but its intent was to overturn the judge's ruling, effectively gutting portions of the Clean Water Act and other mining regulations.
President Clinton had promised to veto any anti-environmental riders inserted onto any appropriations bill. However, Byrd is a powerful ally to Clinton and ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. So, Clinton said he would support Byrd's rider.
That changed on October 29 when Judge Haden stayed his ruling until the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals takes up the case. The judge wrote "a firestorm of reaction has come forth from Defendants and state government officials, predicting that the Court's injunction will cause unprecedented economic and social dislocation throughout West Virginia. As noted, those "opinions" not originating with the Court reflect, at best, misunderstandings and, at worst, egregious misrepresentations of significant portions of the ruling -- the shrill atmosphere of discord must subside."
At that, the governor lifted the hiring freeze, but left the budget cut planning directive in place. Coal companies rescinded their most recent layoff notices. And, Clinton backed off his support of the rider. Fearing he might yet change his mind, OVEC quickly organized a bus trip to D.C.
Byrd refused to meet with the opponents of mountaintop removal. Less than a week after the opponents came to town, Byrd stood before a crowd of about 500 miners. He called the ruling "wrong headed" and shouted, "Coal turns on the lights in the Capitol. Coal turns on the lights in the White House. We are not going to back down!"
The day it covered Byrd's speech to the miners, the Charleston Gazette reported that the Senator gets one-fifth of his political contributions from mining interests. Byrd's campaign manger said the Senator was not influenced by the contributions. In a press release he said, "The people of West Virginia know Senator Byrd. They know his door is always open."
Around the country, newspapers are editorializing on the "atrocious form of coal mining known as mountaintop removal." They rail about Byrd -- a supposed defender of the checks and balances system of government -- and the rider's "stealth attack on democracy" and the judicial process. Negotiations finally produced an appropriations bill which passed Congress without Byrd's rider. However, Byrd has not given up the fight.
Whatever the outcome, mountaintop removal opponents hope the media attention will continue. The spectacle the nation is witnessing is the slow death of King Coal, an industry that has ruled West Virginia for over 100 years. By the industry's own estimates, at current levels of production West Virginia's coal will last another 27 years.
But King Coal lashes out in its death throes, seemingly determined to take many of southern West Virginia's mountains, streams and coalfield communities -- and perhaps a few politicians -- with it into the underworld.
Only one gubernatorial candidate has dared to take a stand against mountaintop removal. Denise Giardina is a West Virginia novelist who is helping to establish a third party through her extreme long-shot run for governor.
At one rally she said, "They came in here and stole our land, killed a hundred thousand miners, polluted our streams, ground our roads into dust with their coal trucks, and then they have the nerve to tell us that they should be able to destroy our mountains because they have created jobs. Well, the Mafia creates jobs, the Colombian drug cartel creates jobs, and pimps create jobs. And they all create jobs the same way -- by exploiting the people they employ -- King Coal has reigned in West Virginia for 100 years. King Coal is dead. Long live the people of West Virginia!"
Vivian Stockman works for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, PO Box 6753, Huntington WV 25773-6753; phone 304-522-0246; www.ohvec.org