By Dan Radmacher
One of the hardest adjustments when I moved to Florida in 2003 to work for the Herald-Tribune was getting used to the flatness. I had come from West Virginia, which is called the Mountain State for a reason: It is the only state in the nation entirely covered in mountains.
But West Virginia may need a new nickname. Its mountains — along with many in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — are being systematically destroyed by an abhorrent mining practice called mountaintop removal mining.
The practice involves exactly what it sounds like: Once-lush mountaintops are stripped bare. Bulldozers tear trees out by their roots. The top of the mountain is blown into rubble with high-powered explosives and then it is methodically decapitated by huge draglines that scoop up the "overburden" — the compressed dirt and rock that had been an ancient mountain — to get to multiple coal seams beneath.
Most of that overburden ends up dumped in valleys, burying miles of streams. The flattened land left behind is good for little. Though there have been reforestation initiatives, none have successfully restored a genuine, ecologically diverse forest. In fact, just getting trees to grow in the compacted earth has proven extremely difficult.
In a recent documentary, "The Last Mountain," Robert Kennedy Jr. cites the only reason this practice continues: It is going on in isolated places where most of America can't see what's happening.
"If you tried to cut down a mountain in the Berkshires or the Catskills or the Adirondacks or California, you would go to jail," he told The Wall Street Journal. "You would be considered criminally insane."
But mountains in Appalachia are being destroyed every day and little is being done to stop it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been taking a closer look at the practice recently, subjecting permits to greater scrutiny and, in one case, even vetoing a permit that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a massive mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
For its efforts to better enforce the law, the EPA has been subject to increasingly shrill attacks from the coal industry and coalfield politicians.
On July 21, the EPA issued the final version of its water-quality guidance, a document intended, as the EPA says, to "clarify existing understandings and to improve and strengthen permit decision-making consistent with existing law."
The guidance sums up the best available science on the devastating effects of mountaintop removal on water quality and public health, and offers technical suggestions for permitting processes that would best comply with current law given those scientific findings.
The EPA specifically noted that the memorandum "does not impose legally binding requirements and will not be implemented as binding in practice."
Despite that, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., lashed out harshly at the federal agency. He said that, with the guidance, the EPA "has not only appointed itself judge, jury and executioner, but has also deemed itself Almighty God."
Rahall isn't limiting his pique to rhetoric, either. He recently cosponsored a bill — H.B. 2018 — that would gut EPA's ability to enforce key aspects of the Clean Water Act by essentially giving states veto power over EPA's oversight of their water-quality programs.
Other members of Congress — mostly those from coal states who rake in big campaign contributions from coal companies, electric utilities, rail companies and other industries with a stake in coal mining — have been piling on as well.
The U.S. House has held at least three hearings this year attacking the EPA as a job-killing monster.
Yet, as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., noted at one hearing, coal mining jobs have increased in West Virginia in recent years, even as EPA has beefed up its enforcement of mountaintop removal.
In fact, the number of coal miners in West Virginia has increased 8.5 percent since the recession began in 2007. Why? Because, as fewer mountaintop removal mines have been permitted, production has increased at underground mines — which use more miners.
The mechanization that mountaintop removal mining exemplifies is the real culprit behind the decline in the number of Appalachian coal miners over the last few decades.
In 1978, there were almost 63,000 miners in West Virginia, and they produced almost 85 million tons of coal. In 2010, there were only 20,000 miners, but thanks to mechanization, they produced 144 million tons of coal.
As Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment and one of the witnesses at a congressional hearing, said in his testimony, "Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs."
The harsh rhetoric of coalfield politicians aside, it's clear that the bottom lines of big coal operators are more important to them than the economic or physical health of their constituents.
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