Background Information for Mountaintop Removal Reclamation Campaign

Climate Ground Zero protestors James McGuinness and Mike Roselle.


November 24 , 2013

Mountain Top Removal and the Crimes of the Coal Industry

First There Was a Mountain


The first time I went to West Virginia my life changed forever. I was invited down by Judy Bonds and Bo Webb to take a tour of the “coalfields”. Conditions there went swiftly from John Denver’s Almost Heaven, to John Prine’s Mulenberg County in less than a broken heartbeat. Nothing prepares you for this. A mountain is gone, a creek is gone. Gone too is a church, a cemetery, a Union Hall, a school house, gone is a town. I’m standing next to someone who lived there, played in the creek as a child there, yet today there is no there there. And the place where I was standing wouldn’t be there much longer either. Every day, two millions pounds of explosives continue to reduce Appalachia to rubble. Every day, you hear there is progress being made. You haven’t heard the whole story. Here is my take on it.

Peachtree Hollow, pronounced “holler” meets the Coal River just outside of the town of Naoma.  It is one of the most beautiful places on this Earth, with waterfalls, swimming holes and lush old forests teeming with wildlife. It is also home to many people whose families have lived there even before it was part of the United States of America. If you drive up the road you will see what looks like an idyllic Appalachian community, with houses and churches, manicured lawns, orchards and gardens which gives life to all the songs you’ve ever heard about West Virginia. But looks are deceiving. While it’s not easy to see it from the road, fifteen years of mountaintop removal coal mining has left a large visible scar on the landscape just above Peachtree Creek. Bo and Joanne Webb live in Peachtree Hollow beneath what had once been Cherry Pond Mountain, which over the past four years has been reduced to rubble by powerful explosives as the coal companies mine for the coal which we all take for granted. After all, what’s one mountain compared to our need to be warm and comfortable in our homes?

Bo was born in West Virginia and like many of his fellow mountaineers he faced the brutal choice of going into the mines or into the military. As a Marine, he served his country in Viet Nam and after mustering out he built a manufacturing business in Cleveland Ohio. Looking forward to retirement, he and Joanne moved back to the Coal River where Bo could fulfill his dream of hunting, fishing and spending time with his grandchildren. But the dream turned into a nightmare when Massey Energy, now Alpha Natural Resources, started blasting on the ridge above Peachtree Hollow, shaking the house and blanketing his yard in rocks and greasy dust. Putting off his retirement until a later day, Bo became a full time activist and joined forces with other Coal River residents in the fight to end mountain top removal (MTR). That was over 10 years ago, and during that time the issue of mountain top removal has been placed on the front burner of environmental politics due mostly to the hard work and sacrifice of these community members who have assembled a broad coalition of environmental, religious and social justice organizations. Yet it seems that the residents of the Coal River are no closer to their goal of ending the blasting today than they were a decade ago; and each day more mountains are destroyed, more streams are buried, more coal is burned and more carbon is released into the atmosphere.

The reasons for this lack of success are many. The coal companies have money, an army of lawyers, lobbyists and friendly judges and politicians, and the public seems unconcerned with the fate of Appalachia.  This is not surprising; but perhaps the most important reason has to do with the nature of the environmental movement itself, or more precisely the nature of the professional environmental establishment, which has been called the nonprofit industrial complex, one which seeks to lead this movement from the comfort of their offices in Washington, DC and San Francisco. The vehicle most often used by the Big Greens to co-opt local campaigns is the coalition, where groups large and small assemble to decide strategy, and the Alliance for Appalachia was created for this purpose. When this coalition was formed it had the singular goal of ending mountain top removal. The grand strategy of the Alliance was to pass an amendment to the Clean Water Act that would restore the original language in the bill that had been changed by the Bush Administration in 2007. The original wording did not stop MTR even though at least theoretically it made it somewhat illegal. It gave us the key to the courthouse door, where we sat with our attorneys, scientists and engineers, out of sight of the news media, in front of a Judge who had rarely ruled in our favor. And should this Judge ever do such a thing as apply the law he would lose his job because he is elected. Got all that?

Then let us go back a few years.

Over half a century ago, in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act under tremendous grassroots pressure and it seemed to herald in a new era of environmental stewardship. It would now be a Federal crime to further degrade any of our country’s remaining clean running rivers and streams, and progress would have to be made to clean up our badly polluted waterways. And, progress was made. Over the next fifty years, many hundreds of billions of dollars were spent to build water treatment plants; the EPA cracked down on illegal dumping; outflows from industrial operations were reduced; and, in many areas people were starting to go back into the water again.  Yet here in Appalachia, and other regions that sit above large coal deposits, the Clean Water Act was never enforced, and as a result, the coal companies never complied with the new law. They never intended to, and anyone who thought they would should have their head examined.

Also in 1970, West Virginia’s Secretary of State Jay Rockefeller campaigned for the Senate vowing to end strip mining “completely and forever”.   He lost, but was able to win in the next election on bended knee by swearing his fealty to the coal industry, which had spent millions of dollars in their effort to defeat him.  In 1976, opposition to strip mining in Appalachia was so strong that Jimmie Carter would also campaign in West Virginia promising to end it. And while he won the election, he was still not able to end it.  In 1977, President Carter would sign the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  SMCRA had strong support both in West Virginia and nationally, yet had been vetoed earlier by President Gerald Ford.  The new version of the bill had been seriously weakened by amendments favorable to the coal industry.  Indeed, at the time of its signing, President Carter said SMCRA was not the bill he wanted. “I’m not completely satisfied with the legislation. I would prefer to have a stricter  strip mining bill. I’m concerned with some of the features that had to be watered down during this session to get it passed.”

Indeed, SMCRA, rather than end strip mining, would ensure that it would continue to go unregulated. Yet strip mining has never actually been legal in the United States of America. Federal courts have usually avoided ruling on the issue, just as they had avoided ruling on civil rights for almost two centuries. Turning a blind eye was far easier than confronting the issue head on, and the courts focused instead on legal minutiae and avoided the larger question of whether it was right to destroy someone’s property because of mineral rights bought by carpet baggers in the aftermath of the Civil War, or during the Great Depression, even before the machinery to extract it had been invented, or even dreamed of. At that time coal was something mined by hand in dark wet tunnels beneath the mountains. No one imagined at the time that coal companies could move in and take 1000 feet off the top of a mountain to get the thinner seams of coal that could not be mined in the conventional way, regardless of who was living there and regardless of the impacts that it would have on their lives. Never mind that the Clean Water Act forbade dumping mining spoils within 300 feet of a stream. Never mind that SMCRA mandated reclamation, that it even required the mountains to be restored to their “approximate original contour,” over a million acres of mountains and streams have been flattened, and only 2% have been “reclaimed,” much of that reclamation consists of nothing more than grass seed and the Agencies that are charged with enforcing the law are still arguing over the definition of “approximate original contour,” – indeed, they still don’t have one after fifty years.

In 2007, after finally getting a favorable ruling in Federal court affirming that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was indeed breaking the law by failing to enforce the buffer zone rule, President George W. Bush amended the Clean Water Act to redefine toxic mining waste as fill, and therefore it was allowed to be dumped into streams and valleys. But calling mining spoils fill, which are supposed to be naturally occurring materials, does not make it fill. Mountain top removal was still not legal, and the 100 foot buffer zone to protect riparian habitat would continue to be ignored; water quality would be ignored; and the destruction of over two million acres of native forests would be ignored;   the burying of 2,000 miles of stream ignored. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, over 500 mountains have been blasted apart, the coal seems removed; and the rest shoved into the valleys below, burying over two thousand miles of streams. Entire communities have been destroyed, their churches and schoolhouses abandoned, graveyards desecrated – some the final resting place of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.

This sort of deliberate disruption of a culture and depopulation of a region spanning six states can only be described as ethnic cleansing. It’s a war of the coal companies against the citizens of Appalachia, and after eight years of unsuccessful efforts by environmental groups to reform the law by reinserting the original definition of fill, the Clean Water Protection Act still languishes in Congress, with powerful coal state politicians vowing to never let it come to vote. Neither the clean Water Act nor SMCRA focused on the impacts that detonating over five million pounds of high explosives a day was having to the communities located near the mines. The laws focused only on water quality as a measure of compliance. This made political sense at the time; if fish and mayflies were present in the aquatic ecosystem, then the water would be safe for human consumption. Measuring the actual impacts on human health was considered far more difficult due to factors including individual behavior such as smoking, diet and exercise and genetic factors; and every study undertaken was open to a broad range of interpretations and therefore an easy target for coal industry lawyers, lobbyists and their paid scientists.  In the end, the only result of all this mining reform was a new caste of biologists and geologists running around with a tape measure and other scientific instruments measuring and counting things – with coal industry lawyers arguing over every single finding.

Yet no one seemed to care that in the ancient hills and hollows of Appalachia a disaster of the most heinous kind was unfolding, one that had ramifications not just for the communities that are being destroyed, but for all of the people who will be affected downstream, which includes three quarters of the country’s population. And it is also a crucial piece of the climate puzzle. If we cannot overcome the coal companies’ opposition to ending mountain top removal, then we cannot say we have an effective climate movement in this country. So the question is: why is the campaign to end mountaintop removal going nowhere fast? Why is a practice that is so unpopular with the public and the residents of Appalachia, not mention the rest of the country, continuing in the face of so much opposition?

Mountain Top Removal was not a national issue ten years ago. The active opposition was made up primarily of local groups of people who lived, indeed, grew up below the mines. Not professional activists, they attempted to organize their communities to show up at hearings, write letters and attend rallies. They would cross the country, speaking to people, meeting with other environmental groups and telling everyone that would listen about the situation in Appalachia.  They engaged in non violent direct action to get a new school to replace Marsh Fork Elementary, which sat next to a coal loading silo and beneath an 800 foot dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge, and many of them were arrested multiple times blocking the roads to the mines, joined by celebrities like actor Darryl Hannah and NASA climate scientists Dr. James Hanson. Eventually, they succeeded in raising the campaign’s profile to a new level, and helped to raise the money to build the school, which opened in January this year. By now, the larger national environmental groups had taken notice, and at this point the story becomes sadly familiar.

Environmental groups in Washington are institutions with large offices, large staffs and high overhead. Like political parties and politicians they need to raise money all the time. The desire to finance all of this overhead can eclipse all other organizational goals, including winning campaigns. The need to be seen as leading on the most important issues is essential to their goal of raising money, especially money from large foundations and wealthy donors. Being outshone by smaller grassroots groups can lead to a defection of these donors to the smaller, but higher bang-for-buck groups who are seen as making visible progress. This is when coalitions are formed, and it’s not long after that the big groups are calling the shots.  To be fair, one exception to this type of positioning is the group Earthjustice.   Earthjustice has been nothing short of respectful and supportive of these grassroots groups.

Those small community based groups understand the benefits of forming alliances with the big greens, yet often don’t fully understand the risks involved. The big groups and even some of the smaller ones, once committed to the campaign, often treat the grassroots like junior partners, or worse, they exploit them in order to raise more money. They can even be condescending, patronizing and in the worst cases treat the local activist like bumpkins, who don’t understand the ways of Washington, and this is where the co-option begins.   A particular phenomenon that has been called by one local activist “the dancing hillbilly,” is where Appalachian community leaders are paraded around to illustrate how closely the groups are working together, when in fact all of the money goes to the big groups. If you go to their sites you see pictures of these community leaders, and pictures of mountain top removal placed right under an action alert and a donate button. For the last five years that action alert has been focused on the singular goal of changing the wording on the buffer rule exemption, redefining mining waste as fill. In all this time the bill has languished with scant support in Congress. The powerful Chairman of the Energy and National Resource Committee, West Virginia Representative Nick Rahall, a Democrat, has vowed to never let it come up for a vote. But this doesn’t matter, as it makes it look like everybody is busy doing something about MTR while on the ground nothing is happening and nothing is going to happen.  This is the nonprofit industrial complex, where risk-taking is avoided and no one leaves their comfort zone; because in the end they have bills to pay, children to educate, and no one will be blasting above their neighborhoods six days a week; or rolling by in heavy trucks; or threatening them, their children and even their pets for daring to speak out against the crimes of the coal industry.

All of this co option has not gone unnoticed here in Appalachia, and two years ago a group of local activists was formed, led by Bo Webb.  Sensing that the movement was spinning its wheels, he began looking for a new approach. It was long known that West Virginia had the highest mortality rates in the country, and that the water quality alone could not explain it. He suspected that breathing the dust from the blasting was the cause for many of the aliments that were killing people in the hollows and wanted to conduct a study to find out. In 2011, working with the medical faculty at the University of West Virginia he was able to raise enough funding to finance a new study that would take basic health information and hair samples of people living under the blasting, and compare that with people who lived in similar West Virginia communities where there was no blasting.

The results of this study were shocking even to those who suspected a strong link between breathing the blasting dust and the high rates of cancer, birth defects and respiratory problems.  Cancer rates in the Coal River Valley were found to be 100 percent greater than non mountaintop removal communities.  Another study by WVU and Washington State Scientists focused solely on birth defects demonstrated significantly higher rates of birth defects in communities near mountaintop removal.  A baby born to a mother living near mountaintop removal faces twice the risk of birth defects compared to a baby whose mother did not live in an MTR community.   A woman that lives in an MTR community that does not smoke cigarettes during pregnancy has a ten times greater chance of having a baby with a  respiratory defect than a woman that DOES smoke during pregnancy, but DOES NOT live in an MTR community.   Over the next year 6 additional peer reviewed health papers were published which uncovered more links between the blasting and higher than normal death rates in central Appalachia’s coal mining regions.

According to Bo Webb, “We know that the air we breathe in MTR communities contains silica dust, diesel fuel, ammonium nitrate and other toxins. Just recently we have discovered that our garden soils are deadly as well with elevated levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) toxins. When considering the fact that more than 5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate diesel fuel mix have been detonated daily, six days a week, for the past 15 years of full blown MTR, it is no wonder people are sick and dying, and birth defects in mountaintop removal communities are off the charts; the fallout is killing us. Our water, our air and our soil are contaminated. We are witnessing a health crisis possibly unlike any in U.S. memory.  We are calling for all hands on deck to end this unnecessary and harmful type of mining.

Wanting to run with this mounting body of evidence on the adverse health impacts of MTR, the ACHE Campaign (Appalachian Community Health Emergency) was formed in early 2012, uniting concerned citizens from Coal River Mountain Watch, Mountain Health and Heritage Association, and Christians for the Mountains, to specifically address the rapidly growing health impacts from mountaintop removal.  The strategy is to address this public health emergency for what it is, a health issue created by an industry that routinely abuses the environmental, placing profit above humanity.    On June 19, 2012 the work of this group resulted in the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (The ACHE Act) as it was introduced in the US House of Representatives.  The ACHE Campaign intends to keep the issue alive through a continual presence in Washington, DC of Appalachian volunteers who are directly impacted by the blasting, who will speak for themselves.   The ACHE group has leased an office that also serves as lodging near the Capitol which will serve as headquarters for the campaign.  The ACHE will bring in volunteers for training and intensive lobbying in an effort to get the bill passed in this 113th Congressional session. They plan a full court press and are determined to get this done. “We encourage you, if you’re concerned about mountaintop removal’s effect on human health, to join us in making your voice heard,” said Allen Johnson, executive director of Christians for the Mountains. “Please contact us, learn about the issue, and take action to protect your community.”

Official Summary of the ACHE Act:

The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act or the ACHE Act – Requires the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct or support comprehensive studies on the health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on individuals in the surrounding communities.

* Directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), upon receipt of a report on study results, to publish a determination of whether such mining presents any health risks to individuals in those communities.

* Defines “mountaintop removal coal mining” as surface coal mining that uses blasting with explosives in the steep slope regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. Prohibits issuance of an authorization for any mountaintop removal coal mining project (or expansion), under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) or the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, until and unless the Secretary publishes a determination that such mining does not present any health risk to individuals in the surrounding communities.

*  Imposes requirements for continuous monitoring of air, noise, and water pollution and frequent monitoring of soil until a determination by the Secretary is made.

*  Assesses a one-time fee upon persons that conduct such mining projects, sufficient to cover the federal cost of the health studies and pollution monitoring required by this Act.

One of the more serious flaws in the Clean Water Act bill is that it unites every one with a pony in the race.  Not just all of the companies involved in strip mining, but real estate developers, industrial agriculture, anyone who moves dirt from one place to another. The ACHE Act only addresses blasting, and only on the Cumberland Plateau, it only addresses the adverse health effects it has on the people who have to breathe the dust. Breathing that dust will kill you, and it certainly killed Judy Bonds, who died of lung cancer at age 54. Judy was a non smoker who led an active healthy life. The Marfork Mine, formally owned by Massey Energy (now Alpha Natural Resources) sits above to the house she grew up in, which is surrounded by a chain link fence now, and you can see it from Marfork CEO Chris Blanchard’s desk, which I discovered only when chaining myself to it.

Don’t take my word for this; ask Bo Webb.  You’d think that such an urgent grassroots campaign would be welcomed by the coalition. Wrong.   Some have actively lobbied against the ACHE Act.  ACHE is all volunteer with an office but no officers.  Only individuals can join the campaign. We don’t have committees formed to discuss forming another committee.  We are focused and determined to pass the ACHE Act and thereby end mountaintop removal.   Your help is greatly needed and appreciated.  Please stay in touch and visit the ACHE  web site to learn more about the campaign and  for updates.

MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: