Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mountaintop Removal Mining: Seeing Government inAction

On Thursday morning, six of us from progressive groups at Georgetown went to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing entitled “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs – Part I.” (Note the title, about which more later.) Claire Austin (SFS ’12), co-president of EcoAction, works at Appalachian Voices, an environmental nonprofit focused on protecting the land, air and water of Appalachia. Appalachian Voices asked us to come pack the hearing room with me to show the committee that we oppose efforts to weaken the EPA’s authority to regulate mountaintop removal mining (about which more below). We were happy to help and to get the chance to see government in action.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of coal mining where the summit of a mountain is blown up with explosives in order to extract coal from the exposed coal seams beneath. The leftover earth, known as “overburden,” is dumped in an adjacent valley to create a “valley fill.” MTR is used extensively in Appalachia. Check out this helpful FAQ from for more data on where and how coal companies are using MTR.

The environmental effects of MTR are devastating: streams become buried by the overburden and polluted by run-off; toxic coal dust fills the air in nearby communities; trees are stripped from the mountains before the explosions and often simply burned; and native species—not only aquatic life but also flora and land animals—are threatened. There are documented human health effects, as well, such as increased risk of lung cancer and heart, lung, and kidney disease.

The issue at the hearing was, more specifically, whether the EPA had overreached its authority in its recent attempts to step up regulation of MTR. Full disclosure: I was unfamiliar with this regulation until I got to the hearing Thursday morning, and I admit that I couldn’t follow all its minute details. But the general idea was that EPA had issued a new guideline to coal companies calling for them to meet a certain standard of electro-conductivity in the water downstream from MTR sites. Electro-conductivity measures how much metal is in water, since metals conduct electricity. MTR tends to cause metals like selenium to enter the water, with fatal consequences to aquatic life. So requiring coal companies to meet a certain standard of electro-conductivity before they can receive a permit for MTR would allow EPA to regulate MTR’s effects on the surrounding environment.

We learned this from the very helpful John Humphrey, of Appalachian Voices, and from pamphlets available outside the hearing room—not from the hearing itself. The panelists were all decidedly anti-EPA and pro-MTR. There were four panelists: Michael Gardner, the General Counsel at Oxford Resources, which operates surface mines in Ohio; Harold Quinn, President of the National Mining Association; Leonard Peters, Secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet; and Teresa Marks, Director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

The House subcommittee members were also all clearly anti-EPA and pro-MTR—surprise, surprise. The members present were almost all Republicans—Chairman Bob Gibbs (OH), John Duncan (TN), Shelly Capito (WV), Chip Cravaack (MN). The sole Democrat was Nick Rahall (WV), who was there ex officio, but he was one of the strongest supporters of MTR present and was indistinguishable from the Republicans.

Since both the lawmakers and the panelists agreed on the issue, the hearing was absurdly unbalanced. That’s clear, too, from the title of the hearing. In their opening remarks and the question-and-answer session that followed, they attacked the EPA regulation from three angles. First, the scientific angle: electro-conductivity, they argued, is not a proven measurement of MTR’s effect on the environment. Second, the regulatory angle: EPA, they argued, does not have the authority to introduce this guideline. Third, the economic aspect: this EPA regulation impedes job growth by slowing the growth of coal companies.

I can’t comment on the scientific aspect. The panelists claim that EPA produced a peer-reviewed study of electro-conductivity only after issuing the guideline; beforehand, they produced a non-peer-reviewed study. Quinn cited his own study that allegedly shows that electro-conductivity is not a reliable measurement of environmental damage caused by MTR, but this study was paid for by his own company. Moreover, despite pressure from the chairman, he would only go so far as to say that the existing science was inconclusive—not that it definitively challenged electro-conductivity as a measurement.

As for the regulatory angle, it was clear that the committee members and panelists were launching a broad attack on EPA rather than criticizing this specific guideline for MTR permits. They devoted much time to complaining about EPA’s communications with regard to the permits and suggested that EPA was unfairly targeting a single industry in a specific area. They also insisted that the guideline had become a de facto rule without going through the normal legislative process for EPA regulations. They even criticized EPA for not taking job growth into account when doing its environmental assessments. EPA, they claimed, had broken the federal-state partnership to protect the environment.

It may be true that EPA overreached, initially, in this case, by issuing a guideline that was not yet supported by a peer-reviewed study. But this is no grounds for condemning EPA as an institution, as the speakers at this hearing were doing. Nor does this guideline necessarily target a specific industry. Presumably, if a practice similar to MTR polluted streams with heavy metals, companies pursuing this practice would also need to demonstrate that they would avoid this pollution before getting a permit. It is only because MTR causes so much damage that it encounters so much EPA regulation. In addition, it is not EPA’s job to assess how its regulations impact job growth; that, indeed, would be overreaching. If the federal-state partnership to protect the environment has been broken, it is not because of EPA regulation. It is because coal companies and the state officials that support them have allowed—even encouraged—practices that, like MTR, are the very antithesis of environmental protection.

The economic argument is perhaps the easiest to refute. EPA regulation has not been shown to slow job growth. As Appalachian Voices notes in the helpful fact sheet they handed out at the hearing, MTR does not produce more jobs than underground mines. Nor has the prevalence of MTR internationally been shown to be linked to higher unemployment. In fact, a decline in production from MTR between 2007 and 2010 coincided with not job losses, but rather job growth in Appalachian mines. Check out this great blog post from Appalachian Voices’ JW Randolph for a much more complete analysis.

From a broader perspective, one has to ask whether the ruinous effects of MTR on the environment are worthy any short-term jobs they would create. The residents of MTR-affected communities would suffer long-term health problems, and the ecosystems around them, which many rely on for farming, would be severely damaged. There is no doubt that job growth is important, especially in lower-income areas. However, communities in Appalachia would be better served by the introduction of clean-energy industries like wind and solar power, and the more stable job growth that would come with them.

The facts are that MTR is a hugely destructive environmental practice that only makes more brutally efficient coal mining, which is already harmful enough. MTR wreaks potentially irreversible destruction on landscape, trees, ecosystems, and wildlife. It harms humans and causes strife in communities. It is yet another example of how we destroy our environment and endanger our future in the search for short-term profit.

The most enlightening man I heard speak on Thursday was not a Representative or a panelist, but an older man from Kentucky who has lived in Appalachia for decades and has seen the effects of MTR first-hand. In 1998, Jericol Mining sought to blow up the top of Black Mountain—the highest peak in Kentucky. When a fifth-grade class organized in opposition to MTR, the state basically bought off the coal company to save the peak. The coal company responded by mining the rest of the mountain, south of the area that the state had bought.

Now this man, whose house lies in the valley between Black Mountain and Pine Mountain, hears explosions two or three times a day. The valley fills with thick dust each time. He has seen fewer and fewer fish in nearby streams, he said. In his words, the coal companies have a “stranglehold” on the region—a stark contrast to Representative Capito’s rhapsodizing about how the industry was delightfully “woven into” the fabric of the communities. This man’s community has split between those who support MTR and those who oppose it. He spoke of the constant threat of violence—a man threatened to this man’s wife to burn down their house, and he often sees bumper stickers that say, “Hug a Coalminer, Shoot a Treehugger.”

This man traveled all the way from Kentucky for the hearing. The committee members did not offer to let him speak.

As you can see from the title, this is only Part I. Part II is scheduled for next week, on Wednesday, May 11, at 10:30 AM. Lisa Jackson, the head of EPA, will be a panelist at that meeting. The other panelists are David Sundling, a professor at Berkeley; Reed Hopper, from the Pacific Legal Foundation, the oldest conservative law firm in the country; Michael Carey, President of the Ohio Coal Association; and Steve Roberts, President of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

So if you’re interested in environmental activism or government procedure, be sure to attend this hearing! Some of us who went to the hearing on Thursday may attend this one, as well. If we don’t, we can give you information on how to get to the hearing. Email or look for information on our Facebook page. It’s a truly worthwhile experience for a worthwhile cause.


  1. Wow, great blog post! You described what happened so well. It was frustrating but I'm glad we got to go.

  2. Hello everyone, Nice information to send about valley between Black Mountain and Pine Mountain.

  3. This is awesome and well-researched post. I think you have spent much time on it. Love the both pictures… Keep it up!!