Where Does the Obama Administration REALLY Stand on Mountain Top Removal?

mtrAs the battle over mountaintop removal, or MTR - also known as surface coal mining - heats up, with six current protestors unable to make bail, it seems a good time to outline a chronology of this practice, which environmentalists say has turned parts of Appalachia into a wasteland.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, defines MTR as: a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

This dumping is what most alarms environmentalists, because it can bury streams and rivers, effectively cutting off water supplies to regional ecologies and people. Even where it doesn't, coal sludge can infiltrate water supplies, causing human health problems like cancer, which is now 70 percent higher in some areas of Appalachia than the national average.

This sludge also causes severe environmental problems all along the stream's path. These streams, formed by spring rain into tiny rivulets, often less than 12 inches wide, harbor a wealth of microscopic life, insects and other aquatic life that build the foundation for the forests and rivers of Appalachia - a coal mining region that extends the length of the Appalachian Mountains, from southern New York State in the north to Mississippi in the south, including all of W. Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee, and Virginia.

The MTR timeline begins with President Barack Obama's campaign statements opposing the process, stating that he had "serious concerns" and did not support it. In an August 2007 speech in Lexington, Kentucky, Obama said: "We're tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels."

In the same speech, he added: "We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal, than simply blowing the tops off mountains."

These remarks seemed to herald a new era for MTR, one that Bank of America got behind by announcing in December of 2008 that it would no longer fund surface mining projects. The hope and promise extended well into the first months of the new administration, when the EPA - in a major policy shift from the coal-friendly Bush administration - announced that it was delaying permits for two MTR projects.

The subsequent outcry by the coal mining industry was predictable. Advocates of MTR reacted by threatening the already perilous American economy with job losses, specifically in the mining industry, and added that the loss of coal would seriously hamper energy production. March 30: coal mining industry reacts with threats of job losses in coal sector

Then, in what seemed a serious case of backpeddling, on April 25 the Obama administration announced the potential appointment of Glenda Owens, an avowed MTR advocate and holdover from the Bush era, to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), the agency most responsible for directing coal mining operations.

Owens is the OSM's acting and deputy director. The OSM bills itself as, "balancing the nation's need for continued domestic coal production with protection of the environment", but environmentalists and Appalachia residents have seen precious little environmental protection come down from the agency, especially in the past eight years.    

More recently, the Obama administration has tried to gracefully back out of the nomination - a move supported by the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, whose executive director, Jeff Ruch, noted: "It is hard to imagine a poorer choice to lead this troubled agency. Glenda Owens in no way resembles the type of change that Barack Obama promised to bring."

Fuel was added to the furor when, on April 21, ABC News reported that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had called Obama an indentured servant to the coal industry. Kennedy, an environmental activist who says "clean" coal is a dirty lie, later denied the allegation, but the damage to Obama's credibility, vis a vis his campaign statements, was already done.

To the administration's credit, on April 27 the EPA, under Obama appointee Lisa Jackson, did reverse one of Bush's most heinous midnight regulations by changing the stream buffer zone rule to reflect more stringent regulations established in the Reagan era. But nothing was done to prevent MTR itself, and on May 15 the EPA approved 42 of 48 surface mining permits, a move that Grist's Jeff Biggers calls, "waterboarding for Appalachia".

The move elated MTR supporters, but left environmentalists wondering if Obama could be trusted to support water quality concerns over those of the coal industry. It also leaves those on both sides of the issue uncertain what the EPA's ultimate objective is. As Earth Justice Attorney Jennifer Chavez commented: "There's clearly a lot of confusion here."

But perhaps not so much for the approximately 75 opposition activists, 17 of whom were arrested on May 24 after chaining themselves to coal trucks and displaying protest signs at Brushy Fork, one of three W. Virginia MTR sites. Six of those remained in jail because they were unable to post the $2,000 cash bond required for release over the long Memorial Day weekend when most banks are closed; an amount that some jurists say is illegal, given the maximum $100 fine for trespassing. All were finally released - four on their own recognizance - by Tuesday, May 26.  

In light of that extreme bail, it's surprising that police refused to arrest former Congressman and anti-MTR activist Ken Hechler (D-W.Va.), who also trespassed on a Massey Energy mine site, according to Mountain Justice spokesman Charles Suggs.

In an interview, Suggs speculated that the arrest of Hechler would have created a much larger media response to the protest, an effect the government and mining companies didn't want. Suggs also noted that the $2,000 cash bond, which preempted the use of a bondsman or the posting of personal property, was far in excess of the legal maximum, which should have been closer to $365.

"Someone was totaling taking advantage of the situation, but we're looking into it." Suggs said, adding that he couldn't comment further on the subject.

"The only way to end MTR in Appalachia," Suggs added. "Is a groundswell of local resistance, but Appalachia has such a rich and amazing history of resistance that the rest of us have a great deal to learn."

According to Suggs, a poll shows that most people in W. Virginia do not like mountaintop removal, but two hundred years of domination by the mining (and timber) companies have left residents with few choices; either work in the mines or flip burgers - a situation that could be improved by a stronger, more diverse economy, which doesn't necessarily mandate a large corporation moving in to provide jobs, Suggs noted.

"The EPA's apparent move toward stricter regulation made a show, but we have since found out that is just a show, and Obama's talk of change is a sham because we see no change here." Suggs concluded.

It's a sham for the residents downstream of the Brushy Fork coal sludge impound concerned, particularly in view of the pre-Christmas 2008 failure of the impound at the Kingston Fossil Plant west of Knoxville, which released a record 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash.  This was a failure that led some environmentalists to call it the biggest environmental disaster in American history.

Aside from activism, one of the few positive notes in the MTR landscape is the Appalachian Mountain Restoration Act , or S.696, which was read on March 25, passed to a Senate committee, and most recently amended by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York). If passed, the bill will potentially end MTR by applying Clean Water Act standards to mining operations.

For more information on Mountain Justice, and videos of the protesters and their comments, please visit: http://www.mountainjusticesummer.org/.

Other related articles on Celsias:

Closing the Door on New Coal Plants

Watch: Ashley Judd's Appeal to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

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If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Jared (anonymous)

What does the author mean by "the approximately 75 opposition activists" as this movement is clearly larger than 75 folks?

Written in June 2009

Jeanne Roberts (anonymous)

There are, in fact, thousands, but only 75 turned out that day for protests in three separate locations, one of which was Brush Fork. Check the link by the sentence.

Written in June 2009

judy bonds (anonymous)

Thanks very much for the detailed comments of President Obama as the coal friendly politicians are trying very hard to find a way for Obama to back out of his statements. The only thing I can see is that if Obama continues to aide the coal industry in blowing up Appalachia-then Obama is validating the horrible environmental destruction legacy that George W. Bush left, which makes Obama as guilty of crimes against nature and humans. Obama's new slogan should be "Yes we can-blow up Appalachia and poison the people"

Written in June 2009

Jeanne Roberts (anonymous)

The quote is from Suggs, but represents the very real problem between campaign promises and presidential action. I agree with you; If Obama continues in the same vein, he is as guilty as Bush for crimes against nature and people. However, he is both a very young and a very new president. I advise giving him time to refine his position and strategy.

Written in June 2009

Emily Gillespie (anonymous)

It is important that we end MTR and stop destroying the water that is so precious to West Virginia, and all of Applachia!!

Written in June 2009

Jeanne Roberts (anonymous)

I couldn't agree more! But how about we end MTR not just for the sake of Appalachian water, but for the whole area, which is one of the most beautiful in the nation?

Written in June 2009

watcher (anonymous)

I think you will find tobacco use a "MAJOR" contributor to that seventy % higher cancer rate than the national average in appalachia.

Written in June 2009

Jeanne Roberts (anonymous)

I suspect you may be a shill for the coal companies, paid to post such comments to divert attention away from their egregious violations of health, safety and human rights.

Written in June 2009

kielmartin (anonymous)

good comment i agree with u

Written in May 2011

Steve (anonymous)

If you aren't a fan of mountain top removal just come to Wise county Va. You will notice nice shopping centers, places to eat subdivisions ect. All built on reclaimed surface mine land. It's pretty easy for you "city folk" to say what's best for Applachia but come down here and look for job!!! Not so easy then..... We love our coal jobs and the life it provides... So thanks for your concern but we can take care of ourselves!!!!

Written in June 2012

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  • Posted on May 29, 2009. Listed in:

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