James Hansen: End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

22 Jun 2009: Opinion

A Plea To President Obama: End Mountaintop Coal Mining

Tighter restrictions on mountaintop removal mining are simply not enough. Instead, a leading climate scientist argues, the Obama administration must prohibit this destructive practice, which is devastating vast stretches of Appalachia.

by James Hansen

At 11:36 am on an April morning in 2006, Larry Gibson and his beloved Dog, stand at the edge of his property on Kayford Mountain, just a massive diesel fueled blast implodes yet another piece of this precious place. ..Kayford Mountain has been the home to Gibson’s family since the turn of the 20th century and the coal companies have vowed to take all the rich low sulfur coal that lies beneath Gibson.  photograph (C) antrim caskey, 2006

President Obama speaks of “a planet in peril.” The president and the brilliant people he appointed in energy and science know that we must move rapidly to carbon-free energy to avoid handing our children a planet that has passed climate tipping points.

The science is clear. Burning all fossil fuels will destroy the future of young people and the unborn. And the fossil fuel that we must stop burning is coal. Coal is the critical issue. Coal is the main cause of climate change. It is also the dirtiest fossil fuel — air pollution, arsenic, and mercury from coal have devastating effects on human health and cause birth defects.

Recently, the administration unveiled its new position on mountaintop coal mining and set out a number of new restrictions on the practice in six Appalachian states. These new rules will require tougher environmental review before blowing up mountains. But it’s a minimal step.

The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise. It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill. The political pressures are very real. But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration’s larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate. Coal is the linchpin in mitigating global warming, and it’s senseless to allow cheap mountaintop-removal coal while the administration is simultaneously seeking policies to boost renewable energy.

Mountaintop removal, which provides a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, is done by clear-cutting forests, blowing the tops off of mountains, and then dumping the debris into stream beds — an undeniably catastrophic way of mining. This technique has buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have serious damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware. Mountaintop removal also poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Coal ash piles are so toxic and unstable that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the location of the nation’s 44 most hazardous coal ash sites must be kept secret. They fear terrorists will find ways to spill the toxic substances. But storms and heavy rain can do the same. A recent collapse in Tennessee released 100 times more hazardous material than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

If the Obama administration is unwilling or unable to stop the massive environmental destruction of historic mountain ranges and essential drinking water for a relatively tiny amount of coal, can we honestly believe they will be able to phase out coal emissions at the level necessary to stop climate change? The issue of mountaintop removal is so important that I and others concerned about this problem will engage in an act of civil disobedience on June 23rd at a mountaintop removal site in Coal River Valley, West Virginia.

Experts agree that energy efficiency and carbon-free energies can satisfy our energy needs. Coal left in the ground is useful. It holds up the mountains, which, left intact, are an ideal site for wind energy. In contrast, mountaintop removal and strip mining of coal is a shameful abomination. Mining jobs have shrunk to a small fraction of past levels. With clean energy, there could be far more, green-energy jobs, and the government could support the retraining of miners, to a brighter, cleaner future.

Politicians may have to make concessions on what is right for what is winnable. But as a scientist and a citizen, I believe the right course is very clear: The climate crisis demands a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and safely dispose of all emissions. And mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be permanently prohibited.

President Obama remains the best hope, perhaps the only hope, for real change. If the president uses his influence, his eloquence, and his bully pulpit, he could be the agent of real change. But he does need our help to overcome the political realities of compromise.

We must make clear to Congress, to the EPA, and to the Obama administration that we the people want mountaintop removal abolished and we want a move toward a rapid phase-out of coal emissions now. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries is over. It is time for citizens to demand — yes, we can.

The Indypendent: Operation Appalachian Spring Photo Essay

From the Indypendent, a bi-monthly newspaper produced by the volunteer staff of the New York City Independent Media Center (NYC IMC). The Indypendent is the longest running print project of more than 100 Independent Media Centers (IMC) around the world.

Copies of the June 5, 2009 edition of the Indypendent will soon be available from the offices of Climate Ground Zero in Rock Creek, WV. To view the newspaper online, download a .pdf here.

Operation Appalachian Spring
text and photos by antrim caskey

Since the late 1880s, powerful coal mining companies have dominated Appalachia, ravaging the land with underground mining, strip and contour mining and the latest method, mountaintop removal coal mining. After the Surface Mine Reclamation and Control Act (SMRCA) passed in 1977, mountaintop removal was basically institutionalized, facilitating the destruction of hundreds mountains, mountain communities and their people.

All for coal.

Today, local residents and environmentalists say, “Enough! You’ll have to put me in jail to get at that coal.”

Operation Appalachian Spring  (text and photos by Antrim Caskey (c) 2009 )
Operation Appalachian Spring (text and photos by Antrim Caskey (c) 2009 )

To view the photographs in Photoshelter, click on the images below, you will be re-directed.

THE INDYPENDENT - Images by antrim caskey

Reflections on Climate Ground Zero

My name is Sam. I’m a fresh face to the activism scene. I’m a 21 year old from Portland Oregon and came to this camp for several reasons: travel, opportunity, networking, building a resume, and general life experience.

A year or two ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead at something like this mainly because I was uninformed at a point in my life where I didn’t think there was really a point in being involved in any kind of group or getting behind any ideals.

Then I met my wife and really started to realize that there was good reason to care about things. I used to just be worried about partying etc… then I started working with my first non-profit. It was a great experience because it showed me that the only real way to get things done is to get out there and do them.

I came to this camp not really knowing what to expect and I’m really impressed with the atmosphere. The trainers are understanding and accommodating. Seeds of Peace have been offering amazing food. The young people here from all around the U.S. and Canada are passionate, educated, eager, and driven.

One of the main things about grassroots activism is that knowledge really IS power and that what you don’t know really can hurt you and the people, places, and things you care about.

I wasn’t aware of the Tarsands project in Alberta Canada before coming to this camp. I had no idea that something of that magnitude was being developed. It really shows how the media can pick and choose what shapes peoples lives and the fact the corporate media is often times in the pockets of the big oil companies.

Also, in my opinion, I feel that the majority of people in this country may in fact BE informed, but they feel powerless. I think people really need to be shown that THEY really can make a difference. Not just environmentally, but politically, socially, and economically.

People are what change things. We are the ones that elect officials and politicians, and those officials and politicians should be held accountable for the votes they make that don’t reflect the citizens they’re supposed to be representing.

This camp is really fun. It’s also important and serious. We’re all friendly and having a good time, but we all understand the implications of the work we’re striving to do.

This training is vital for developing the skills to deal with the media, how to climb buildings to drop banners, how to plan a campaign, and effectively use the internet. The action/and direct side of things as well as the work of connecting people and strategizing.

I will most certainly be looking forward to more opportunities to do this kind of thing, to meeting new people, to gaining more experiences for campaign work.