We gathered in the mid-morning: four mountaintop removal activists venturing out for a tour of the 2,000 acre permit request in Rock Creek proposed for blasting. The haze had not yet burned off as we took the Jeep and headed up Rock Creek toward the top of the mountain. We passed homes both great and small, some with gardens, chickens, dogs, chain link fences, and residents mowing and weed eating. Soon the homes became farther apart and we rounded the corner at Workman’s Creek.
Stopping frequently for photographs, we navigated the bumpy, rock-and-boulder-strewn dirt roads — quite a difference from the freshly paved county road that lead up into the residential neighborhood and then ended abruptly. The hardwoods were full and lush and flowers bloomed wherever the light hit the forest floor. Finally, we began to see gas pipes along the dirt road along with several pumping stations. And, when we stopped at a peak, we could see across the valley toward Kayford Mountain.
No sooner had we exited the Jeep when Ed said, “Look there!” He pointed to the right side of the view of the strip mine operation where a white cloud ascended from the ground operation. The haze was still making things fuzzy, but the cloud was clear enough to make out.
We didn’t hear a boom. And it was much too early for the afternoon blast signifying explosive mountaintop removal, blowing chunks of coal, dust, heavy metals, toxic compounds, sequestered carbon, and everything else within the blast site skyward to rain down on the community — both human and wild.
The evidence of Big Coal’s extraction appears in stark contrast to the green, lush mountains: absent ridges, valleys, or contour, these are massive scars on the stumps of mountains, ugly, uninhabitable, unthinkable. Just for coal? So much destruction for $100 per ton?
The beauty, the biological diversity, the recreational opportunities, the very soul of Appalachia are all crumbling away.
These photographs depict what is still beautiful and intact, as well as what is being destroyed on a daily basis on the last mountains standing. See what we see and share what we know about the devastating effect of mountaintop removal. Pay particular attention to the blight upon these once thriving mountains and learn more about how you can help Climate Ground Zero end mountaintop removal.
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.
Latest online article in the Ecologist about Mike Roselle, Climate Ground Zero’s Director. The piece is about the state of mountain top removal coal mining, the politics of West Virginia’s coal apologists, and just why Roselle delivered blasting dust debris to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mansion in Charleston on Thanksgiving last year. Then, just a few weeks later, Freedom Industries rusty, leaking chemical tank of MCHM leached into the Elk River, contaminating the downriver water supply of 300,000 residents of Charleston, after being “filtered” by American Water’s treatment plant.
Courtesy of www.theecologist.org
Photographs by Mike Cherin
When Mike Roselle tried to give his State Governor a sample of Mountain Top Removal dust for analysis, he was not expecting to be arrested at gunpoint and banged in jail for a week on suicide watch – all without charge.
A few seconds after he rang the doorbell, Roselle was surrounded by a dozen State Police officers, guns drawn.
A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving Mike Roselle decided he’d had enough.
Enough of the toxic dust in the air. Enough of the constant blasting that rattles his small house.
Enough of the poisoned well-water. Enough of the chopped mountains and buried streams. Enough of the forests, playgrounds and cemeteries plowed under for one more suppurating coal mine. Enough of seeing his friends sicken and die in the West Virginia county that has the highest mortality rate in the United States.
A straightforward mission
That November morning Roselle, the John Brown of the environmental movement, took a drive with his friend James McGuinnis up roads washboarded by the ceaseless transit of coal trucks to Kayford Mountain.
What used to be a mountain, anyway. Much of that ancient Appalachian hump has been stripped, blasted and gouged away by the barbarous mining method called Mountaintop Removal. Roselle’s mission was straightforward.
He aimed to collect some of the dust, the pulverized guts of the mountain, that showers down on the nearby towns and villages, streams and lakes, day after day, like deadly splinters from the sky.
Roselle scooped up a few pounds of that lethal dirt in a couple of Mason jars. He wanted to have the debris tested. He wanted to know what toxins it contained. Lead, probably. Arsenic, perhaps. Mercury? Who really knew. The mining companies weren’t saying. Neither was the EPA.
A dutiful servant – of Big Coal
Roselle got it into his head to take the mining dust to the one person in the state who might be able to give him some answers, to assure the folks who live under the desolated shadow of Kayford Mountain that there was no cause for alarm – the man who was charged with protecting the citizens of West Virginia from harm, the Solon of the Monongahela, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.
On Thanksgiving morning, Roselle went to Charleston with his jar of dust. He walked right up to the Governor’s mansion and rang the doorbell.
Earl Ray is what you might call a lifelong politician. A Democrat, Tomblin was elected to the West Virginia senate fresh out of college in 1974. He was 22 at the time and has held elected office ever since. Across those four decades, Earl Ray has been a dutiful servant of Big Coal.
Every time a coal mine caved in, a waste dam breached, or an explosion of coal gases maimed and killed some miners, Tomblin would be there to offer his comfort. Consolation to the afflicted coal executives, that is.
Tomblin has raged against the ‘war on coal’. His administration has repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of coal companies, citing its “ideologically driven, job-killing agenda”. And he has assured the mountain people of West Virginia that the coal dust fog that shrouds their communities is safe to breathe, eat or drink.
An unexpected turn of events
Then Mike Roselle showed up on Tomblin’s doorstep to make the governor prove it. Roselle didn’t expect to see Tomblin that morning, so he’d slipped a note inside the jar asking the governor to test the dust and report back to him on what it contained.
But a few seconds after he rang the doorbell, Roselle was surrounded by a dozen State Police officers, guns drawn. Roselle was immediately arrested, hustled into a waiting police car. He was not told why, apparently because the cops couldn’t find a section of the state code that Roselle had transgressed.
They drove him to jail anyway, saying simply they “had orders to bring him in.” Orders from whom, they didn’t say.
Over course of the next six days Roselle was kept jailed without charges, including three days inside the Hole, the disciplinary unit. Why? Because Roselle had refused food until they could inform him of the charges against him.
Later he was transferred again, this time into a glass-enclosure, the suicide watch room, where he was forced to wear an orange medical gown for two days. Then, suddenly, he was released on a mere signature bond.
A few weeks after Roselle walked out of that Charleston jail, a storage tank at a chemical ‘farm’ owned by Freedom Industries ruptured.
Out of a one-inch hole in a white stainless steel tank, a stream of a licorice-smelling crude began pouring onto the ground and into the nearby Elk River and downstream directly into American Water’s intake and distribution center – the primary drinking water source for the Charleston metropolitan area.
The chemical that contaminated Charleston’s water supply, forcing 300,000 to go without drinking water, was a compound called MCHM – 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol.
It’s used in the processing of coal and another highly toxic compound marketed under the name of Talon, which is manufactured by Georgia-Pacific, a company owned by the Koch Brothers.
Authorities not alerted
Freedom Industries discovered the leak early in the morning of January 9th, but never alerted state authorities or the water company. Hours passed before any attempt was made to stem the flow of the chemical into the Elk River. In that time, more than 125 people were sickened by drinking fouled water and sought treatment at area hospitals.
The fiancée of one of Freedom Industries’ top executives claimed that the illnesses were probably induced by the media. She said that she’d showered and brushed her teeth with the contaminated water and was “feeling just fine.”
As for Governor Tomblin, he took pains to reassure the people of West Virginia the spill that had fouled the Elk and Kanawa Rivers had absolutely nothing to do with the coal industry:
“This was not a coal company incident. This was a chemical company incident. As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”
Apparently, Tomblin was unaware of the fact that nearly all of Freedom Industries’ contracts were with the state’s coal industry.
Nor that one of the company’s top executives, J. Clifford Forrest, is also the president of Rosebud Mining, a Pennsylvania coal mining company – which was recently sued for illegally giving advance warnings to mine managers of impending safety inspections by regulators.
On the afternoon of the Elk River spill, state legislators were meant to convene in the capitol building for a special session geared at passing a resolution denouncing the ‘war on coal’.
But the statehouse was evacuated before the great debate could take place, with lawmakers scrambling out the exits, coats over their heads, in a vain attempt to shield their lungs from the sickly-sweet smell of MCHM.
And to this day no one in West Virginia is quite sure whatever happened to Mike Roselle’s jar of dust.