The Common Good

Political Winter Storms in the West Virginia Coalfields

In the old days, in the coal towns of West Virginia, winter was a time when folks hunkered around the pot-bellied stove and whiled away time spinning stories. At times, someone would fiddle with the draft, poke the coal embers, and release an extra dollop of acrid coal smell. Houses were drafty. Your front side facing the stove could be burning up, your backside shivering cold.

Open coal mine Garzweiler IIphoto © 2009 Bert Kaufmann | more info (via: Wylio)

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This winter, the politics of coal is burning red-hot. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed an earlier permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would expand Arch Coal’s Spruce Number 1 mountaintop removal mine. Without the veto, surface mining would claim 2,200 mountainous acres and bury 7 miles of stream. Environmentalists who had fought the proposal for ten years celebrated. The coal industry steamed.

The EPA has jurisdiction through the Clean Water Act. Yet EPA has used its 404 veto authority only 12 times since 1972, while processing about 80,000 Clean Water Act permits a year. EPA based this ruling on science, finding that “in streams where valley fills were proposed but not yet constructed, water quality was within scientifically defensible, acceptable levels to support native aquatic life.” Yet in streams where the upper headwaters were buried or disturbed by mining, “water quality as measured by conductivity levels was substantially above levels believed to cause excursion of water quality standards or significant degradation.” Clear enough?

The coal industry cried foul. After all, a permit had been granted by the Army Corps of Engineers. How could the industry make plans if the “rug could be pulled from under them?” King Coal, marionette meister that it is, jerked hard its strings, and all our politicians danced their jig.

West Virginia Senator Joe  Manchin echoed Arch Coal’s lament, that “they [Arch Coal] made every effort to comply with the EPA consultant’s recommendations and simultaneously maintain an economically viable operation.” A previously secret engineering study then came to light that Arch Coal refused to consider a plan that would have cut the stream impacts by half with an additional added cost of 55 cents per ton, a 1 percent additional production cost.

Acting West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a “Call To Arms Rally for Coal” in the state capitol. The “call to arms” wording was later changed to “alert alert alert.” State Sen. Mike Green, (D-Raleigh), chair of the Senate Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee, said the “unprecedented action” by President Obama’s EPA was “nothing short of a reckless abuse of power.” The state Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing the EPA decision. At the rally, the invocation was delivered by Rev. Mitchell Bias, from the Delbarton Regional Church of God. “Coal is your will. You placed it here on earth. It is part of your master plan,” Bias stated. Some people attending the rally wore black “Friends of Coal” T-shirts reading, “Pro-Christ, Pro-Life, Pro-American, Pro-Guns, Pro-Coal … Republican.”

During a counter demonstration, Maria Gunnoe said, “Mountaintop removal is no longer a jobs issue. It is a health issue. They are killing us by destroying our mountains and destroying our water.”  Gunnoe’s point was underscored by the January death of anti-mountaintop removal heroine Judy Bonds, who died at age 58 from cancer. More than 400 people commemorated her life at a memorial service, vowing to continue the fight.

January was also the month that Vermont State Senator Virginia Lyons introduced a precedent setting resolution into her legislature as a first step toward a U.S. Constitutional Amendment. Hopes are high that it will pass. The resolution proposes, “an amendment to the United States Constitution that provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.”

Winter is still cold and dark, yet daylight is getting longer, the sun brighter.

Allen Johnson is co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.

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