Mountaintop coal mining is the scourge of communities in Appalachia and in other rural areas across the U.S. Entire mountains are blown apart to allow access to seams of coal that lie within. Emotions run high as dust, blasting, water pollution and flooding push people out of their homes.
For those brave enough to challenge illegally granted permits in the courts, threats against home and family are now rampant. Communities find themselves embroiled in difficult and lengthy efforts to hold regulatory agencies accountable. Citizens must hire independent hydrologists, biologists, and other legal and technical experts to challenge illegal practices at great personal and financial expense. They find themselves confronting angry neighbors who work in the mines — one family’s livelihood pitted against another family’s home and heritage.
Today, in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, the situation is explosive — literally. Streams disappear in an instant as coal companies blast apart mountains and bulldoze rubble into valleys. These “valley fills” have buried or damaged more than 1,200 miles of irreplaceable headwater streams.
What’s left is a wasteland.
More than 400,000 acres of the world’s most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forests have already disappeared and it is predicted that that figure could increase to 1.4 million acres — 2,200 square miles — by the end of the decade if nothing is done to limit this practice.
In addition, the coal industry emits more greenhouse gases and mercury into the atmosphere than any other industry, as the nation’s 1,100 coal-fired power plants spew roughly 50 tons of mercury into our environment each year.
How Green Were Our Valleys
Many facets of mining — such as long wall mining, strip mining and abandoned mines — left from an era before laws were passed to protect the environment have assaulted Hurricane Creek, here in west Alabama. In West Virginia, it is called mountain top removal. In Kentucky, cross ridge mining. In Tennessee, it is peak reduction. And in Alabama, it is plain old strip mining. All of it is insanity.
Many coalmine operators still propagate the myth that “we are not going to hurt anyone or the environment.” I have worked all over the country with Citizens Coal Council to expose the truth about coal. I have not yet been in a community where the operator did not say “we will be good neighbors” and “we will fix anything we break.”
Tell that to Marian Plovic of Washington, Penn. Her house on Route 136 was subsided by long-wall mining on Christmas day in 1998. The house tilted three inches and continued until it had tilted 25 inches on a diagonal slant. The foundation was broken beyond repair so a repair crew raised her house up off the foundation and built a new concrete foundation. Before the house could be lowered onto the new foundation, however, it cracked beyond use. The Plovics moved back into the home in late February 1999 and by mid-March, the house had tilted about 20 inches over 40 feet. As of today, Marian and her husband are still living in and repairing their home.
The house I once rented on Shoal Creek in Jefferson County, Ala., is now standing in water. The house has long ago rotted into the river but the fireplace is still standing in water as a reminder of what was once a beautiful fishing camp. Old growth forests of 100-year-old oaks and hickories stand dead in 3 feet of water. The water level did not rise. The riverbanks sank into the river in what is referred to in long-wall country as a planned “earthquake.” Subsidence is the one absolute in long-wall mining. It will happen, of that there is no doubt.
Simply put, coal is not our salvation. It is not clean, cheap or efficient. Coal is benign enough when it’s left in the ground, where it works as a filtering system for aquifers below. The trouble starts when it’s exposed to the atmosphere: It starts to oxidize. The oxidization process and contact with rain causes the sulfur contained in coal to become H2So4 or sulfuric acid, also known as acid mine drainage (AMD). Acid from the mine waste and overburden cause heavy metals to be dissolved and deposited in the water, which causes a ferrous bacteria to accumulate or armor the stream bottom, making it uninhabitable for fish or wildlife. In the Hurricane Creek basin, we have many examples of AMD from past mining as well as current operations.
Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane Creek was included on the 303(d) list, a list of impaired streams not meeting designated use classification, for mine tailings, Ph imbalance, iron, aluminum and others. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was charged to complete the total maximum daily loads (TMDL) showing the amount of pollutants allowed to be permitted. ADEM sat on it for 20 years until Alabama Rivers Alliance and Friends of Hurricane Creek/Hurricane Creekkeeper sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4 to force ADEM to comply. EPA performed the survey but when the process was completed, we still faced another dilemma: how to implement the reductions?
There are five coal permits up for “voluntary revocation and renewal.” A 30-day notice and comment period is associated with each. None has been answered and no reissuance has occurred. Drummond Coal Co. has been in comment since December 2006. ADEM refuses to deny or issue the permit and claims that they are waiting on judgment on another case we filed years ago against Tuscaloosa Resources Inc. ADEM accepted a permit “voluntary revocation and re-issuance” while the final appeal was under way. Four Republican judges voted unanimously to overthrow the permit. ADEM reissued anyway, starting the entire process all over again.
Dam failures occurred at one local coal mine when tons of dirt and trees used for a temporary dam blew out and inundated the creek with extremely turbid water and woody debris. No fines were issued.
A few years later, a concrete dam failed, dumping millions of gallons of acidic water into Hurricane Creek. Most strip mines in our area are in acidic veins that produce hot or contaminated water. During the spill, millions of gallons of this water was released into the creek. Testing would have given us some indication of the expected impact to fish and wildlife. Neither ADEM nor Alabama Surface Mining Commission (ASMC) brought sample bottles to the spill site for testing so no Ph test was done on the coalmine failure.
It was quite obvious from an aerial view that the spillway was not constructed with steel reinforcement as the permit required. When I pointed it out to the Mining Commission’s inspector, he stated that he did not know if steel was required. But on inspection of the permit, he found that I was right and it was required. A violation like that is extremely egregious and could, if enforced diligently, cost Black Warrior Minerals their permit. Instead of issuing a new violation for the infraction, the inspector rewrote the existing violation to include “failure to maintain sediment basins.”
Now there is a rock quarry operating in the pit with no permit at all while ADEM sits asleep at the wheel.
Both Hurricane Creekkeeper and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke and his staff are now deep in the fight for accountability in the mining industry here. While we are both out gunned by the courts and industry, we continue to change things with each lawsuit. We will take back our creek and river, and give them back to our communities in better shape than we found them. That’s the Waterkeeper promise around the world, and we plan to keep it.
EPA and the Army Corps issued a new rule making it legal to dump “fill material” directly into waterways. With a simple 404 Permit from the Army Corps, they simply changed the definition of the term “fill” to signify compliance with the Clean Water Act. This rule meant that the Army Corps of Engineers could loosen its mitigation standards for waterways destroyed by mountaintop mining.
The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) proposed significant changes to the “Stream Buffer Zone Rule.” The existing rule specifically precludes mining activities within 100 feet of a perennial stream or an intermittent stream without a variance. OSM’s proposed changes would exempt the most devastating surface mining activities from coverage under the requirement, allowing for the creation of valley fills and huge coal-slurry waste ponds.
The Bush administration reversed a rule authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to deny mining operations on federal lands if the operations could cause “substantial irreparable harm” to resources and were unable to be mitigated.
The Interior Department overturned a policy allowing only a 5-acre waste site for every 20 acres of mining activity, in favor of a policy that did not limit the size of mining waste sites.
– Originally posted by John L. Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper