In the fight to end mountaintop removal, where is Big Green?
If there is one thing we have learned over the last three years here on the Coal River is that what is responsible for the increasingly high rates of cancer, lung and heart disease, birth defects and other serious health problems is not the water. It won’t kill you. Today, most people in West Virginia are drinking tap water that meets or exceeds EPA standards.
The surface water, well, that is another question.
Not long ago most West Virginians drew their water from a well. The water was so good that people visiting their families from would fill up bottles and bring it back to the cities where they had moved to. They ate fish from the creeks and rivers and their children swam in the deep pools in the hollows. That was before the coal companies began blowing up the mountains, burying streams, processing the coal and pumping the sludge into empty mine shafts and abandoned oil and gas wells.
Many of the rivers and streams in West Virginia now exceed legal levels of toxic chemicals like selenium, heavy metals and many other toxic substances, including 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), the chemical that was released into the Elk River last January and poisoned the water of 300,000 West Virginia residents in nine counties, including Charleston, the state capitol. During this event, many people got sick even after government officials declared the water safe to drink. Over a thousand people complained of symptoms stemming from the exposure. Now levels of MCHM are below one part per billion, yet many people in Charleston are still not drinking the water.
The contaminated water was supplied by the American West Virginia Water Company. Formerly a publicly held utility it is now owned by a multinational corporation that is buying up water companies across the country. There are also many smaller water companies in West Virginia. Since the well water is no longer drinkable, water has become a booming business.
As bad as it was, the Elk River chemical spill did not kill anyone, and only time will tell if there are going to be long lasting health effects. The citizens of Charleston have gone back to taking showers and appear ready to elect the same politicians who allowed this to happen in the first place. Business as usual returns to Appalachia as if it had just gone outside to have a smoke.
In recent years it has become fashionable to drink bottled water, and now of course they sell it in Walmart. You can choose the water you drink and even though it can cost more than gasoline most people can still afford to drink it. When it comes to the air we breathe, however, we don’t have a choice. We can’t have air shipped in by the National Guard or the Red Cross. And the air we are breathing now is killing us.
Since mountain top removal by definition occurs in the higher mountains, the columns of dust and debris from the blasting will rise high in the atmosphere from each mine site at about 4:30 every day except Sunday. The dust and particles will settle wherever the wind will blow them. Most of the heavy particles settle nearby, on roofs, cars, churches, playgrounds, gardens or in the forest. The lighter particles can travel much further, and are just as deadly. They contain heavy metals, poly aromatic hydrocarbons, silica and other toxic substances. Even indoors you can see the settled dust on every surface, a stubborn greasy film that resists easy cleaning. In some places on the Coal River, residents are cautioned to not eat anything from their gardens, not even an apple from a tree. Yet another reason to go to Walmart.
The mass poisoning of 300,000 people, which was covered as a major news event, has led to a few changes in water policy. A few. A new law was passed and the rusty tanks and leaky pipes will be painted and perhaps checked more often. But the chemical that was spilled, MCHM is still being used to wash coal and winds up in the sludge which is still dumped upstream. Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the leak, was shipping millions of gallons of MCHM each year, and it is but one company that distributes it. The new law may keep it out of the tap water but it is still going into the aquifer and into the streams and rivers mixed with the industrial waste produced in the coal cleaning process, which also involves many other chemicals. Billions of gallons of this slurry is disposed of behind earthen dams located throughout the region. These rivers supply drinking water to many more millions of people downstream.
Measuring chemicals in your tap water tells you little about what is happening upstream. If we want clean water downstream we have to look up river where our water comes from. Appalachia is the roof of Eastern North America, and the rains that come off the Gulf and the Atlantic are caught here, absorbed in the rugged forest covered hills and delivered to the sea via many rivers to both coasts. Chemicals introduced up here travel downstream due to the magic of gravity, and any damage to the headwaters will affect river flows. This is about much more than the economic and ecological health of a handful of poor rural counties. If you want to see what is really causing climate change get out of your house and go look up your roof.
And this is what is happening upstream. Two million acres of forest irreparably destroyed, more than a thousand miles of stream buried, dozens of communities bulldozed, thousands forced to flee their homes, and five hundred mountains turned into gravel to produce a fuel we don’t need and that is killing the planet. Shutting down coal fired power plants and convincing banks to divest from the coal industry is drawing much needed attention to the effects of MTR but it will not be enough to stop it as long as the export market remains strong. Coal production in Appalachia has slowed a bit from recent historic highs, but is poised to rise again due to increasing natural gas prices and the idling of less profitable mines elsewhere.
Many environmental groups have been heralding the decline of coal in the production of electricity as proof of the imminent death of Big Coal citing hundreds of power plants have been cancelled, shut down or switched to natural gas and the fact that some banks are getting nervous about investing in the industry, but this is a big mistake. The coal companies themselves cherish the fantasy that they are the underdog as it helps them position themselves as struggling against a much larger, more powerful, well-heeled and better connected environmental movement, who don’t understand where energy really comes from. David Brower, founder of the modern Sierra Club, always cautioned against seeing ourselves as bigger or more powerful than our opponents. “If we all merged” he’d say, “They could buy us all for lunch money.” We can only succeed if we have the public on our side. Our combined budgets are less than the advertising budget for Doritos.
We simply cannot surrender our underdog status to the Coal Barons. Even with less money we have many other ways to reach out to the people. Even pooling all of our resources, we could never afford a big media buy anyway. When you hear these large professional outside groups say that we have Big Coal on the run, that we have turned a corner, that we are making tremendous progress in our efforts to end MTR, don’t be deceived. Get out of the house and look on the your roof. You will see that little has changed and that there is still much work to be done.
What can be done?
With our tiny planet succumbing to the proverbial death by a thousand cuts, with so many people in so many places suffering from the extraction, processing and delivery of fossil fuels, and so many others who are suffering the effects of climate change, why should what is happening now on the Cumberland Plateau be so important?
I will give you the short answer….unfinished business.
It is no big secret that Appalachia has for over a hundred years been a natural resource colony and an ecological sacrifice zone. A hard fought campaign against strip mining that began in the 60’s was concluded with the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. Signed by Jimmy Carter, he lamented publicly at the time that it was not the bill he wanted to sign. It was a compromise and the Big Green groups had been willing to give away the store because they wanted to pass a Wild and Scenic River Bill. They made some deals with the Yellow Dog Democrats representing the coal fields and the fix was in. Nevertheless, the Sierra Club would claim victory and walk away, leaving their members to conclude that the hills had been saved, when they had been sold down the river.
Just over ten years ago I was to learn this story as I was standing upon Cherry Pond Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia. My guide, the late Judy Bonds informed that next year this mountain would be gone. Using the Surface Mine Reform and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), Massey Energy had obtained a permit to blow it up and push it into the valleys below. While illegal under federal law elsewhere, West Virginia is one of the few places exempted from the Clean Water Act. While in the past it would have been fair to blame this situation on the coal companies, at this point one could be forgiven for blaming it on the Sierra Club. Ten years ago the Club was not evening running any coal related campaigns on the national level although some local chapters had taken on a few power plants. They were very bullish on natural gas back then, but have again reversed themselves as they had with nuclear power twenty years earlier. Slaves to consistency they are not.
The uprising in Appalachia that began in the Spring of 2005 would change everything. The sight of hundreds of people being arrested blockading the mine entrance and dozens of others chaining themselves to the giant excavators on the mine itself had put mountain top removal on the national radar screen. The executive directors of most every environmental group parachuted in and pledged their support. They were photographed with the late Judy Bonds and the late Larry Gibson, (both of whose deaths were likely from breathing the toxic air), and the selfies were duly posted. Unfortunately the promises made during those years have not been kept, and once again the attention of Big Green has shifted to another region and another crisis. If I were an oil or mining company I might take this to mean that if you can withstand the force of a campaign for a few years you will be rewarded when the big groups eventually roll up their tents and declare victory.
Ten years ago the Clean Water Restoration Act (CWRA) was introduced in Congress by a broad coalition of environmental groups. The bill would restore what has become known as the “buffer rule” and would prevent dumping overburden or other mining wastes within 300 feet of a stream. It seemed a simple and easy solution at the time, but has proved to be anything but, yet the most serious problem is that the Clean Water Restoration Act will not end mountain top removal.
It will not end MTR because it simply tells the mining company where they can and cannot put the overburden and says nothing at all about the blasting. Even under the unlikely event that this amendment to the current law is passed, unlikely because not only coal miners but developers, loggers and even some farmers oppose it we would simply go back to taking out our tape measure and to measure three hundred feet from the creek and tell them to put the waste over there. Then we can go back to counting the minnows and mayflies in the creek and maybe even get back into court where we will be bogged down for years on each and every permit.
We don’t want to go back to that. We need a new law, a real law, and a very simple law to end MTR. A number of groups in the region have become convinced that now is the time to go to Congress with a real mountain top removal bill and as a result The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act) has been introduced in Congress. This calls for an immediate moratorium on new blasting permits until the federal government conducts testing to confirm the results of testing done by the ACHE Team, the organization which wrote the bill, which has collaborated on over twenty peer reviewed medical studies confirming the deadly effects of the blasting.
A major fault of the Clean Water Restoration Act, and the main reason it languishes in committee, is that it unites many interested parties in opposition. All mining companies, oil companies, land developers and even some farmers do not want stricter enforcement of the stream buffer rule. By focusing only on the blasting and its noted link to adverse health effects the ACHE Act will be introduced not in the Energy and Natural Resource Committee but the Health and Public Service committee and will be debated as a human health issue and not simply a water quality issue. It has nothing to do with rewriting SMCRA. It doesn’t cost the taxpayers much money. It is not even a ban, but a moratorium. Congress is under pressure to pass some legislation to deal with climate change and this may be something they can do without feeling much pain.
The ACHE Act is a grassroots effort led by residents of the communities who live near the MTR mines. It is their response to the frustrations of the past few years with the national groups, many who opposed the idea when it was first being discussed. Their position seemed to be that they work in Washington, that they know what can and cannot be done, and this cannot be done. Well, three years later not only has it been done, but it has already more sponsors and a better chance of passing than the CWRA which the Washington groups have been supporting for ten years. For the Big Greens, it appears now as if they believe changing strategies would be an admission of defeat. Yet they understand that a strategy is exactly what is lacking. Why not back the ACHE Act and take another run at it, this time listening to the voices of the elders of our community?
Today, the climate movement desperately needs a victory. I watched as many climate leaders came to the Coal River and promised to stay until we got one. Have they given up? If we cannot stop mountain top removal we cannot say that this country is doing anything about climate change. How do we point our fingers at Canada and say don’t develop the tar sands or tell the Russians to stay out of the Arctic? And if the environmental movement cannot keep its promises here why would anyone believe they will keep future promises made elsewhere? If Big Green wants to get back in the game, they need to support the communities who are fighting everyday to end MTR and support the ACHE Act, the only bill that will do that.
Mike Roselle, Climate Ground Zero