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In coal country, heat rises over latest method of mining

Monday's explosion has focused attention on mine safety, but environmentalists worry about long-term effects of 'mountaintop removal.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 2006


When Maria Gunnoe looks over her 40-acre farm in southern West Virginia, she finds it hard to believe it's the same place that, growing up, she considered her "own little private heaven."

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Seven floods in five years have washed out most of her yard, filled her barn with debris, and destroyed parts of her bridge. The stream where she used to swim and catch bait is now a pollution discharge system. The well water is now so toxic that bathing in it has caused problems.

"It's hard to absorb everything that's happened in the last seven years," Ms. Gunnoe says, looking at a photo of the farm in happier days, before the fruit trees fell victim to pollution and flooding and the surrounding horizon was forever altered.

In Gunnoe's opinion, there's one culprit: mountaintop removal mining.

It's a method of extracting coal that has become more common among the steep slopes of southern West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. It's the most efficient way to get the coal - an important energy source - and an economic boon for a struggling state, proponents say. But the practice, which involves blowing off the top of a mountain to reach the rich coal seams beneath, exacts a toll on the environment and the quality of life that some here, like Gunnoe, are increasingly unwilling to pay.

Here in Boone County, one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest states, residents are bringing lawsuits and launching local campaigns to save their piece of Appalachia. "The worst thing I can do at this point is sit back and keep my mouth shut," says Gunnoe, now an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Mountaintop mining began in the 1970s, on a tiny scale. It increased significantly in the past decade, now accounting for about 95 percent of surface mining in southern West Virginia and between one-quarter and one-third of all coal mining in Appalachia.

"There are about 28-1/2 billion tons of coal in this area," says Bradford Frisby, associate general counsel for the National Mining Association, an industry group. "Mountaintop mining is definitely the most efficient means of removing the coal, and in a lot of these areas it's really the only way you can mine these particular coal seams."

But critics say it devastates the environment, particularly the forest ecosystems and the many streams buried under soil and debris blasted from the mountaintops. By conservative estimates, more than 1,200 miles of streams have been affected and 350 square miles of mountain land destroyed.

This fall, four federal agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Office of Surface Mining - issued a long-delayed Environmental Impact Statement on the practice. The study, originally intended to minimize harm from mountaintop mining, shifted in 2001 when then-deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles redirected it to focus on "centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting" - which the final EIS does. The change infuriated environmentalists, who claim the government is weakening environmental regulations to help the mining industry.

"A lot of what has renewed the growth of mountaintop removal mining in the last four years has to be attributed to Bush administration policies that have removed any obstacle, including local citizens, standing in between industry and the mountains," says Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel at EarthJustice, an environmental law group. She cites a 2002 rule change that designates rubble from the blast as fill rather than as waste, and a plan to ease a restriction on mining within 100 feet of a stream.

The mining industry, for its part, says the mines operate with the strongest environmental regulations in the world. Moreover, coal is an increasingly important source of energy within US borders, says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.

"You have to look at what you're disturbing versus what you're offering your country," he says. Coal technology is cleaner than ever, he adds, and with oil prices high, many are looking to coal to meet America's energy needs.

Mr. Popovich and Mr. Frisby point to the many mining jobs in West Virginia, as well as to indirect jobs like trucking and manufacturing. "These are the kinds of jobs that can hold a community together year after year and sustain it through ups and downs," says Popovich.

To some, costs outweigh benefits