United Nations Working Group Concludes U.S. Visit Exploring Human Rights Cost of Mountaintop Removal Mining

The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights has concluded a visit to communities in West Virginia to explore the human rights cost of mountaintop removal mining. In West Virginia on Thursday of last week (April 25), the UN Working Group conducted morning meetings with officials at the West Virginia Department of Environmental…


Liz Judge, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5237

The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights has concluded a visit to communities in West Virginia to explore the human rights cost of mountaintop removal mining.

In West Virginia on Thursday of last week (April 25), the UN Working Group conducted morning meetings with officials at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Coal Association. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) organized the delegation’s afternoon session, which included a field trip to the Boone County towns of Twilight and Lindytown. Lindytown suffered a “forced extinction”, according to OVEC, due to the encroachment of mountaintop removal operations.

In Twilight, more than 20 people from across southern West Virginia met with the Working Group delegation to tell their stories about the human rights cost they have encountered as the coal industry brings mountaintop removal into their communities. Among those present were representatives of Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keepers of the Mountains, OVEC and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

The expert group visited West Virginia as part of a targeted effort to assess current initiatives, opportunities and challenges in implementing the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the United States. Those principles were unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, and represent the first global benchmarks to address negative impacts on human rights of business activities, articulating both a state duty to protect its citizens’ human rights and corporate responsibility to respect human rights. 

On May 1, in Washington, DC, the U.N. Working Group held a press conference to discuss its preliminary observations on the human rights impacts of mountaintop removal mining. The following is an excerpt of today’s statement by the Working Group:

“We travelled to West Virginia to engage with stakeholders (regulators, industry representatives and community representatives) related to the challenging and divisive issue of surface mining. 

.…We have heard allegations of significant adverse human rights impacts, most notably related to the enjoyment of the rights to health and water. Other concerns raised to us include lack of compliance with regulatory standards concerning access to and protection of cemeteries, lack of consultation and lack of effective remedy. The Working Group also heard allegations of intimidation, threat and harassment of individuals and groups who are vocal in their opposition to surface mining production. The Working Group urges that these allegations be investigated and addressed as soon as possible. In line with the Global Principles, the [Working Group] also urges companies engaged in surface mining production to take any necessary steps to prevent, mitigate and address any adverse impacts and account for how such impacts are addressed, and for business entities linked to any adverse impacts to seek to prevent or mitigate such impact.”

The Working Group will follow its site visit with a detailed official report containing findings and recommendations, which will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2014. The report will facilitate dialogue between the United States and other member states of the UN Human Rights Council about improving respect for human rights.

The following are statements from some of the groups who sent people to speak with the UN delegation:

“All of our world leaders need to work to protect human rights, including the rights of those living in Appalachia who constantly struggle with the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal mining.” – Larry Gibson Jr., a member of Keeper of the Mountains

“We realize that the UN Working Group can’t turn back the hands of time and replace what has already been lost in communities of Appalachia where mountaintop removal coal mining has stripped the mountains of our forests, polluted our streams and wells, uprooted generations old communities, and caused inordinate health problems for those who remain. But we trust their recent visit to West Virginia results in strong recommendations that will prompt actions by the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress to bring a halt to this extreme form of strip mining and protect the health and human rights of citizens living in the shadow of these mountaintop removal mines.” – Cindy Rank, with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

“I’m glad that the UN representatives got to hear from at least twenty people, from OVEC and allied organizations. Since mountaintop removal operations continue to pollute nearby communities’ water, soil and air, while corporate executives and our elected leaders turn deaf ears, we may need the attention of international entities to help make our case on the injustices of mountaintop removal to West Virginia citizens.” – Reverend Robin Blakeman, an OVEC organizer

“Hopefully, the visit from the United Nations Working Group will highlight the human rights injustices brought on to our communities by mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains. This type of mining is destroying our water, our air, and our people. It is time we put people’s health and our grandchildren’s futures above profits for corporations.” – Debra Jarrell, Co-Director for Coal River Mountain Watch

“I am hopeful that our visit from the United Nations is a sign that they’re starting to take notice of the human rights atrocities being committed in Appalachia today. It’s a sad thought that our politicians are so crooked that we have to ask the United Nations for help, but no one else will listen.” – Junior Walk, with Coal River Mountain Watch

The following is a statement from Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez:

“The extreme destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining is a threat to the health, homes, and culture of people throughout Appalachia. Only by protecting communities from mountaintop removal destruction can we safeguard their human rights. We are heartened to see the U.N. Working Group explore the human rights impacts of mountaintop removal mining in the U.S., and we look forward to the Working Group’s recommendations.

“Further, we urge the U.S. government to take immediate action to protect the health, welfare, and rights of communities near mountaintop removal sites. Without delay, the Obama administration must stop issuing harmful mountaintop removal mining permits, and the EPA must set a federal water quality standard for mountaintop removal pollution to finally give communities the basic protection they need. Congress should address the health problems associated with mountaintop removal mining by passing the ACHE Act (H.R. 526). State governments and businesses also have responsibility to protect human rights. We hope the state governments and mining companies take to heart the human rights of the people living near mountaintop removal.”


Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.