Imagine using several tons of explosives to blow 800-1000 feet off the top of a mountain in order to dig out coal beneath. Mountaintop removal (MTR) is its name, and its results are tons of rock, dirt, and vegetation dumped into the surrounding valleys. As an added bonus, it damages aquatic ecosystems, harms water quality, destroys forests, and results in the burning of coal that releases greenhouse gases.
Due to its obvious negative effects on our environment and surrounding communities, public outcry over MTR has been brewing for a while now. In February the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition sent a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to "take a stand to protect our communities, our national heritage, and our climate from mountaintop removal coal mining." The letter also requested that the EPA "prevent additional devastation by freezing the permitting of any new mines."
More fuel for the fire came in February, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not required to conduct more extensive environmental reviews for MTR permits. Anti-MTR activists held extensive protests as a result of the ruling.
On February 17, 500 protestors gathered outside the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky to protest MTR mining. Ashley Judd, actress and native of Appalachian Kentucky was one among them. Later in February, five protestors in West Virginia were arrested after trespassing to unfurl a banner protesting MTR.
On March 2nd, an estimated 2,000 protestors surrounded the Capital Power Plan in Washington, D.C., which is partly fueled by MTR-mined coal. Adding to the string of high-profile names taking a stance on the issue was Robert Kennedy, Jr., NASA scientist James Hansen, and environmentalist writer Bill McKibben. The plant provides power to the House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, Supreme Court and Union Station.
In mid-March, leaders of environmental groups met with officials from the EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement about halting MTR.
In response to building momentum, just yesterday on March 24, Jackson announced the EPA was putting a hold on mountain top removal (MTR) permits until it can evaluate the environmental impacts. Prior to the announcement, the EPA announced it sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the impacts of MTR on water.
"The two letters reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams," said Jackson. "I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."
The halt on MTR permits is a victory for anti-MTR activists who had hoped Obama would end the practice based on campaign comments. Obama said during his 2007 campaign that, "We're tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels."
Appalachian Voices asked Obama in August 2008 what he thought of strip mining, and he answered, "Strip-mining is an environmental disaster!" He went on to say, "We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal, than simply blowing the tops off mountains."
MTR takes place in the Southeast Appalachian Region, located in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in 2003 about MTR. Between 1985 and 2001, over seven percent of Appalachian forests were wiped out and 1,200 streams were either polluted or buried according to the report. An area equal in size to one-quarter of New York City or San Francisco, 800 square miles, was estimated to be destroyed in Appalachia. It is high time we saw an end to such a thoroughly damaging industry.