MTR Mining Update: Watching the Groundswell for Change

Movement to stop the destruction picks up after historic EPA action on MTR

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Yesterday, The New York Times published an excellent editorial on mountaintop removal mining in support of the EPA’s decision to veto the water pollution permit for the largest proposed mine in West Virginia, Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine.

It issues a strong reproach of the antics of certain friends of coal in Congress:

The mine received a final permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007. The E.P.A. has long had the power to veto such permits but has used it only once before. This decision provoked predictably outraged responses from industry and its political friends, including West Virginia’s two Democratic senators, John Rockefeller IV and Joe Manchin III, a former governor …

Arch Coal has vowed a court fight, which Mr. Manchin says he will support. A far better use of their energies would be to find a less destructive way to mine coal.

This moral reinforcement comes after a monumental and whirlwind week in the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining.

The maelstrom began eight days ago, when the EPA made history by announcing an important action to protect communities in Appalachia that are suffering from the destruction and harmful pollution of this mining practice. Its decision to veto the water pollution permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, one of the largest proposed mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia, represented the first time the agency cited environmental justice in its decisionmaking in this area. After nearly a decade of disregard for the Clean Water Act and science, the decision also represented a newfound federal commitment to science and to compliance with the law in an area of the country whose people, waters and lands have been overlooked and sacrificed by the federal government for too long.

For a lot of our partners and friends in the coalfields of Appalachia, it felt like the first time the government was looking out for their health and well-being. They voiced a huge sense of relief knowing that their pleas to the government were finally being heard. And they celebrated the EPA decision as a beacon of hope for their communities and their chance to live healthy lives and drink safe water. If the EPA finally had the guts to stop this one destructive mine, maybe other vetoes could follow. Maybe eventually all people living in Appalachia, all streams, and all mountains could be protected from the explosives, bulldozers, and draglines causing all this harm and suffering.

And then, of course, their elected representatives came in and—well, to say “rained on their parade” would be putting it too mildly. Over the last week, West Virginia Sens. Manchin and Rockefeller, WV Acting-Governor Tomblin, and WV Reps. Rahall and Capito have launched a tirade against the EPA and this decision. Putting out statements, grandstanding, overreacting to new heights, leveling threats, and fear-mongering. A few others in Congress have followed.

Notably, all of the people who’ve said anything against this EPA decision pull in significant campaign funds from the coal industry. Also notably, their statements and their rhetoric have been replete with false information, unsubstantiated claims, non sequitors, and hyperbolic and wrongful charges.

Meanwhile, the people affected by mountaintop removal mining have persevered in showing the world that there is no argument, not even a made-up argument, that can justify the kind of decimation we’re seeing in Appalachia. Yesterday, West Virginia Acting-Governor Ray Tomblin held a pro-coal rally in front of Charleston’s capitol building to protest the EPA’s decision on the Spruce mine. For a sense of the tone of the vitriolic rhetoric here, coal industry groups had been advertising this rally as “a call to arms”—even amid the broader national dialogue calling for an end to violent and warfare rhetoric. Community members and activists turned out in droves with bottles of orange and black water from their faucets, pictures of floods that destroyed their homes, and pictures of once-beautiful mountains transformed into brown, barren moonscapes. Some pictures here and videos here.

Some bloggers and journalists have done an excellent job of correcting these politicians and coal industry spokespeople on their claims and dishonorable motivations. Hat tips to author Jeff Biggers for a slew of well-researched columns this week and to journalist Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette for asking the question whether the facts even matter anymore—and for several posts this week on his blog exposing the real facts.

After a week of politically motivated and industry-fueled backlash, we’re finally starting to see the dust settle and the truth come out.

The truth is that mountaintop removal mining is poisoning waters and harming people, and it’s totally unnecessary. What’s more, it’s also more costly than profitable. Americans see through the political spin, they see the corporations funding these campaigns, and they see that this movement is about saving lives and ushering in justice as much as it’s about saving mountains.

The late Judy Bonds taught us that. This photo mosaic of her is composed of 650 photos from the 700-plus Earthjustice supporters who have chimed in to share their own photos and stories about stopping mountaintop removal mining. Their photos and stories are now on Flickr, as well as this mosaic of Judy.

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.