Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Googling Mountaintop Removal

My friend Sam is riding his bike for mountaintop removal. Err, well, for stopping it, at least. He started riding last week and plans to visit a number of mining towns and gather a petition to end it, which he will deliver to someone in D.C. for the inauguration.

No, I don’t really get it either. I think he might be getting class credit out of the deal, but I’d pretty much sooner graduate late than freeze my tuckus off on a bike from here ‘till the 20th. Now, Sam’s a bit of a liberal moonbat (he won’t mind me saying that- he thinks I’m loony, too), but when he told me about it, I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to form an opinion about his position on mountain top removal. So I’m trying to learn something, here.

Well, my initial Google search turned up a lot of what I'm thinking of as "Sam style" sites, of the hippy "stop it now!" variety. While these might be informative, I want to explore all of the bases here. My suspicion is that, while this might be associated with some environmental damage, it’s probably also associated with a lot of desperately needed employment, so most the residents affected are probably all for it. Of course, those folks are probably too busy actually earning a living to go out and start a blog about it, so there’s that.

Well, Appalachian Voices does note that this form of mining actually reduces the number of workers needed to do the mining, but I doubt that matters to much if the companies are able to produce more. Otherwise, this site’s pretty hysterical (lead quote: "It's like having a gun held on you with the hammer back and not knowing when the man's gonna pull the trigger."), so it’s probably not really the balanced set of facts I’m looking for. But I peruse their “Myths and Facts” section just be sure.

Some of these just plain don’t make sense. For example:

Myth: Mountaintop removal mining improves local economies.Fact: Tourism pumps
far more money into West Virginia economy each year than does the coal
industry.Source: Citizens Coal

Fact: Surface mining (which includes MTR mining), accounts
for only 1.2% of jobs in WV and brings in just 2.6% of the state’s total
revenues. The counties where surface mining predominates are some of the still
poorest counties in the country.Source: 2002 economic census data;

Be that as it may, those don’t refute an argument that this improves local economies in any way. I also note some questionable sourcing:

The Appalachian Highlands are characterized by some of the best and most diverse
forest habitats in the world. Current reclamation practices are unable to
restore native mixed hardwood forests, but rather replace these ecosystems with
fields of non-native grasses. These changes in habitat may significantly impact
neotropical bird populations, native salamander populations and other sensitive
species.Source: Trial Lawyers for
Public Justice

Not exactly established scientists, there. Moving on:

National Geographic tells a story of a family that had been in the area for generations, but moved because of the dust and explosions. However, when you look closer you realize that this this was before the "mountaintop removal" started, so I’m not sure what the point is. That all coal mining is bad so we shouldn’t have any coal? Sorry NatGeo, not going to buy that one.

NatGeo has some more details about job reduction:

Seems that what once required 125,000 workers can now be accomplished with 19,000. But isn’t this the case with all manufacturing/labor type jobs as technology advances? I’m not sure that keeping jobs is the goal for people like Sam. The story goes on to tell some truly sad tales about family dying from various lung ailments, but, again, there’s no indication that these problems have changed at all since the development of mountain top removal mining (in fact, several of the dates cited go back far before the development of it), so again, unless we’re looking to stop all coal mining, this is not making me hate mountaintop removal.

Flooding is discussed, but not in any way that would allow anybody to judge the mining company’s culpability:

The issue of flooding also evokes conflicting views. Raney sees no connection
between mountaintop mining and floods. "Science doesn't bear that out," he told
me during an interview in his Charleston office. "What causes flooding is too
much water falling in too short a time."

Yet a study by federal regulators,
obtained by the Charleston Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act,
predicted that one valley fill at the Hobet 21 mine could increase peak runoff
flow by as much as 42 percent.

Vivian Stockman, a project coordinator with the
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, contends that 12 West
Virginians have died since 2001 because of floods related to mountaintop mining.
"Old-timers will tell you property that has been in their families for
generations never flooded severely until mining began upstream," Stockman
says."It's common sense. Denuded landscapes don't hold water the way forests

(would it have been so hard to pull some records or newspaper archives and check this out, NatGeo?)

The question of what is to be done with the used land is interesting:

It was not the intent of Smackra, of course, to allow coal companies to walk
away from their surface mines and leave them denuded. Stripped mountainsides,
the law declared, must be restored to their "approximate original contour" and
stabilized with grasses and shrubs, and, if possible, trees. But putting the
entire top of a topped-off mountain back together again was an altogether
different—and more expensive—matter. So mountaintop mines were given a blanket
exemption from this requirement with the understanding that, in lieu of
contoured restoration, the resulting plateau would be put to some beneficial
public use. Coal boosters claimed the sites would create West Virginia's own
Field of Dreams, seeding housing, schools, recreational facilities, and jobs
galore. In most cases it didn't work out that way. The most common "use" turned
out to be pastureland (in a region ill-suited for livestock production) or what
the industry and its regulators like to identify as fish and wildlife

"The coal companies have stripped off hundreds of thousands of
acres," says Joe Lovett, an attorney for the Appalachian Center for the Economy
and the Environment, "but they're putting less than one percent of it into
productive use."

Yet the industry should get some credit for what it's
managed to accomplish in post-mining land use over the years. It's provided a
number of West Virginia counties with the flat, buildable space to accommodate
two high schools, two "premier" golf courses, a regional jail, a county airport,
a 985-acre complex for the Federal Bureau of Investigation near Clarksburg, an
aquaculture facility, and a hardwood-flooring plant in Mingo County that now
employs 250 workers.

"Economically, we were dying on the vine," said Mike
Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, as we
toured the 40-million-dollar flooring plant, financed by grants from federal,
state, and local governments and by private investors. "So we got OPM —other
people's money—to get the job done. Without the infrastructure to create jobs,
you're out of the game."

There’s also some discussion of reforestation of the area, but with skepticism. Sam’s main complaint when he stated the problem to me was that this was impacting people’s culture and way of life. The NatGeo article hits this as well :

Standing in the doorway of the Mountain Watch office on the main street of
Whitesville, I listened to Judy Bonds reminisce about the way it was 50 years
ago when she was a child. "I used to swim in the Coal River then," she said,
"but now it's so full of silt that the water barely comes up to your knees. It
breaks my heart. I look at my grandson, and I see that he's the last generation
that will hunt and fish in these mountains and dig for ginseng, and actually
know mayapple when he sees it. These mountains are in our soul. And you know
what? That's what they're stealing from us. They're stealing our soul."

Maybe I’m just not as sensitive to these geographic links because I’ve moved around a lot, but the thing is, things do change. If I said that my neighborhood isn’t the same as it used to be, it used to be that everyone was one religion and the children all had a mommy who was home all day and a daddy who worked, the liberals would be all over me, and rightfully so. Things change. Mountains aren’t one’s soul. One’s soul comes from the things one accomplishes and the people one embraces, not from a place. I’m sorry that you can’t swim or hunt or fish there, but there are dozens of other places that you can. I’m still not convinced. More to come.

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