House Majority Presents: A Day of Masterpiece Political Theater in West Virginia

Political grandstanding prevails over public good and public health in imbalanced House field hearing on water protections in Appalachia


Liz Judge, Earthjustice, (202) 797.5237

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee holds a field hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, in an apparent attempt to thwart important stream protections in Appalachia.

The original stream protections were put into place in 1983 by President Reagan in a rule called the “stream buffer zone rule.” That rule, which prohibited surface coal mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams, promised Appalachians that their vital waters would be protected from industry destruction. But the responsible agencies failed to enforce this rule and instead allowed coal mining companies to bury streams in violation of the rule for many years. After citizens attempted to enforce the rule, President George W. Bush, in a final favor to the coal industry in his outgoing moments as president, repealed it in a midnight regulation.

For three years, while calling on President Obama to reinstate the rule and fix this Bush-era injustice, Appalachians have continued to endure waste-dumping into their streams, without any protective buffer from extremely harmful mountaintop removal mining operations. The Obama administration has promised to restore the longstanding stream protections to Appalachia and improve upon this longstanding rule by proposing a new rule, which will call the “Stream Protection Rule,” by 2011, finalizing it in 2012.

Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee have called this hearing, entitled “Jobs at Risk: Community Impacts of the Obama Administration’s Effort to Rewrite the Stream Buffer Zone Rule,” to criticize the Obama administration’s not-yet-proposed Stream Protection Rule. Relying heavily on industry-created misinformation and an agency contractor’s errors as a basis for unsubstantiated job loss claims, these House members are attempting to derail the rule before it is even proposed. Their claims about job losses have already been refuted by the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Valid information about jobs impacts is not yet available because the agency has not yet released its environmental impact analysis nor its proposed rule.

The real issues that must be addressed by our nation’s leaders are the disastrous and grave health effects and community impacts of mountaintop removal mining and the coal industry’s rampant destruction of Appalachian streams. Protecting streams with a bright-line buffer is common-sense policy that is supported by sound science. Americans deserve real safeguards from harmful mining waste—and the Office of Surface Mining should do much more to protect local communities.

The following statements are in response to today’s House hearing:

“What we’re seeing today is Republican members of the House putting on masterpiece political theater, in spite of real facts and in complete disregard for the health of the people of Appalachia,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice. “The members of Congress who are attempting to stand in the way of these clean water protections need to step aside. Instead of trying to block these for political gain, they should stand up for the people of Appalachia. Also, President Obama must follow through on his promise to the people of Appalachia and propose a strong and protective stream protection rule. Life in Appalachia depends on strong stream protections.”

“To date there are 19 peer-reviewed science papers addressing human health in mountaintop removal communities,” said Bo Webb, member of Coal River Mountain Watch, who is testifying as a witness in today’s hearing. “Not a single one of them has been scientifically refuted. And yet, the chair of this committee has refused to acknowledge this growing health crisis. Instead, he has chosen to serve the for-profit interests of an industry that is harming us. This committee hearing is an affront to people living—and dying—in mountaintop removal communities.”

“The Obama administration must reinstate and enforce the stream buffer zone rule to protect the very existence and culture of Appalachian people,” said Maria Gunnoe, organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Goldman Prize recipient. Gunnoe is testifying as a witness in today’s hearing. “We have witnessed a history of abuses that the coal industry has left in its path—a history that is unimaginable by most people in this country,” said Gunnoe. “Mountaineers will never be free until the madness of blowing up mountains and burying streams ends. The Reagan-era stream buffer zone rule must be reinstated and enforced to protect American lives from these unconscionable industry practices.”

“Ignoring the clear meaning of the ‘stream buffer zone rule,’ state regulators have allowed one stream after another to be destroyed,” said Cindy Rank, chair of the Mining Committee of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “Some, like Connelly Branch of the Mud River, are two miles long—certainly not the ‘dry ditches’ industry claims. As more stream valleys become waste dumps for excess rock, more mountains can be blown apart and more mountain communities are consumed in the process. The villages of Mud and Berry Branch have disappeared, as have so many other small towns where people have had to leave in advance of the mining. Those who can stay on the edges of the destruction suffer mental and physical harm from the mining itself and from the loss of their neighbors and the communities that supported them.”

A growing body of peer-reviewed scientific studies show that people near mountaintop removal mining are twice as likely to get diagnosed with cancer than people elsewhere in the country, and rates of birth defects near mountaintop removal mining are 42 percent higher than in areas without mountaintop removal mining, after controlling for a range of other factors.

“Instead of working to protect the public, these lawmakers are enabling a destructive industry to continue having its way with our land, our water and our very lives,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The politics here are sickening, but not as sickening as the real-life health impacts of mountaintop removal mining on our waters and our lives. It’s time these politicians put the health and lives of Appalachian residents above their political campaign interests.”

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