For Some in Congress, It's Easier To Censor Than Hear Americans
“They are blowing up my homeland,” said West Virginia coalfield resident Maria Gunnoe on Monday morning, in her sworn testimony on the impacts of mountaintop removal mining before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. I feel the vibrations of the core driller in the floors of my home; and the impacts…
“They are blowing up my homeland,” said West Virginia coalfield resident Maria Gunnoe on Monday morning, in her sworn testimony on the impacts of mountaintop removal mining before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
I feel the vibrations of the core driller in the floors of my home; and the impacts of the blasting near my home are horrendous. This is absolutely against everything that America stands for.
When someone destroys water in a foreign country it is called an act of war. When the coal industry destroys Appalachia’s water it’s said to be in the best interest of our homeland security.
My nephew reminds me of what surface mining looks like from a child’s eyes. As we were driving through our community, he looks up and says, ‘Aunt Sissy, what is wrong with these people? Don’t they know we live down here?’ I had to be honest with him and say, ‘Yes, they know. They just simply don’t care.’
Maria’s powerful and moving testimony was a part of the House Subcommittee’s field hearing in West Virginia entitled “Jobs at Risk: Community Impacts of the Obama Administration’s Effort to Rewrite the Stream Buffer Zone Rule.”
From the title of the hearing to the witness list to the committee’s press release, the House majority’s intention with this field hearing was clear: to make a public spectacle out of criticizing the Obama administration’s not-yet-proposed Stream Protection Rule.
The rule would close an enormous Bush-era loophole that removed a long-lived protective buffer zone around streams, safeguarding water quality from industrial dumping. In a midnight regulation on his way out of office President Bush removed this buffer zone completely, encouraging the explosive growth of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
The hearing was woefully biased and unbalanced, with nine witnesses testifying on behalf of the coal industry—including the acting governor of West Virginia Earl Ray Tomblin and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—and only two witnesses testifying to the need for increased stream protections in Appalachia and the community, health, and environmental justice impacts of destructive mountaintop removal mining.
The two witnesses—the only people living in the coalfields on the entire witness list—were Maria Gunnoe, who is an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Bo Webb, a member of Coal River Mountain Watch. They spoke last, after the nine coal industry and coal-allied politician witnesses, who bemoaned the burden of following critical clean water regulations and wrongly blamed the Obama administration for its coal-production woes—of course without a single mention of their real problem, which is the subject of a flurry of current news reports: Coal in Appalachia is running out, there is little left to mine (see the AP’s report that broke the story, Jeff Goodell’s Rolling Stone piece "The Coming Decline and Fall of Big Coal," and even this energy industry publication story).
After nearly two hours of arguments from the coal industry and its political friends, Bo and Maria spoke from the heart, revealing what it’s really like to live near mountaintop removal mining.
During the time left for questions and answers, the Committee chair, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) did not ask any questions of Bo and Maria, and after the hearing, the House subcommittee issued a press release offering the majority’s summary of what happened at the hearing, along with 10 quotes from the hearing. Notably, Bo’s and Maria’s very presence at the hearing, nevermind their statements, were left out of the press release, showing that for many of our Congressional leaders, it is easier to censor Americans than listen to them. Author Jeff Biggers has a must-read Huffington Post recap of the censored parts of the hearing.
Their testimonies were the part of that hearing that Congressional leaders would apparently rather bury than acknowledge.
Why? Because Bo and Maria spoke about the contaminated water in their communities’ wells, the streams running black with dead fish near their homes, the toxic air coming in and out of their lungs, and the grave health risks of living near mountaintop removal mining sites. They spoke of their neighbors having to move away from their hometowns, in escape from these harms and risks. They spoke of ghost towns left after the exodus of friends and neighbors, and family cemeteries decimated by the coal companies. And they spoke of the poverty and disease that remain long after the coal industry has come and taken the mountains and streams.
They also spoke of 19 peer-reviewed scientific studies that indicate that coal mining and mountaintop removal mining specifically are contributing to tremendously high rates of cancer and birth defects in Appalachian coalfield areas.
Said Bo Webb:
Protecting our water is far more important than money, power, and politics … You either believe in science or choose to put your head in the sand and revert to the dark ages …
Statistical research on Appalachian birth defects has found that a woman pregnant has a 42 percent greater chance of a baby born with birth defects than a pregnant woman living in a non mountaintop removal community.
Equate that to cigarette smoking: a baby born in a mountaintop removal community has a 181 percent greater chance of a heart or lung birth defect, while the risk related to mother’s smoking was only 17 perent higher. That, "honorable" committee members is staggering. If that does not get your attention, then you have sold your very heart and soul.
Your pro-life claim is no longer credible; it’s false, and transparent. You stand on your bloody pulpit claiming to be pro life, yet allow our babies to be poisoned, disregarded like yesterdays garbage. A dog has more rights and protection than an unborn baby in a mountaintop removal community.
Watch videos of Bo’s testimony and Maria’s testimony, filmed by Coal Country filmmaker and West Virginia Filmmaker of the Year Mari-Lynn Evans and filmmaker Jordan Freeman, who even faced Congressional censorship in the filming of these videos. Mari-Lynn and Jordan had received approval to film from a committee member in advance of the hearing, but when they showed up, the Chairman’s staff told them they would not be able to film. After a struggle, they managed to get additional approvals to film these testimonies.
For better sound quality, you can watch the subcommittee’s official video on this page, jumping to 99:20 for Bo’s testimony and 106:18 for Maria’s testimony.
But there is one member of Congress who is taking a stand: Rep. Ed Markey (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. On the day of the hearing, Rep. Markey issued a press release and sent a public letter to the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) calling out the agency for its inadequate and out-of-date water protections and regulations from surface mining impacts, especially in the face of such damning health studies. Markey took the agency to task for a laundry list of failures in protecting the people of Appalachia from the harms of surface mining:
In the past, canaries were used in coal mines as a barometer for the health and safety of the coal miners. Today our streams serve as the modern day canary for the health of our environment.
These streams and the life they support are continuing to be harmed by mountaintop removal mining, yet our mining agency appears unwilling to take action to prevent a potential environmental disaster.
The failure of OSM to address these troublesome programmatic issues is particularly alarming given recent scientific studies that have documented the scale of the impacts to air and water quality, and the link between these impacts and human health problems in Appalachia.
Rep. Markey requested a response from the agency by Friday, Oct. 14.
Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.
Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.
Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.