As a new round of explosives shattered the ridges across mountaintop removal mines in Boone and Raleigh counties in West Virginia yesterday, unleashed by a recent U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley gave the first indications that the Obama administration plans to act promptly on dealing with the ravages of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Sutley’s testimony at a hearing at the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies — whose electricity was powered by a coal-fired plant using mountaintop removal coal — raised a few eyebrows of those who recalled a similar pivotal moment in the anti-strip mining movement 30 years ago, when a well-meaning liberal Democratic administration came into power in 1976 and ultimately caved-in to coal lobby pressure and relegated Appalachia to three decades of destruction.

In responding to a question on mountaintop removal policies, Sutley presented some of the questions her office is reviewing:

Whether all of the permits are created equal, do they all represent activities that will have significant environmental impact. So that we can focus on the ones that have the most significant environmental impacts and see what the options are for making sure that if they do go ahead that we are dealing with the environmental impacts.

Significant environmental impact is an understatement: Over the past 30 years, more than 500 mountaintop have been blown to bits, 1,200 miles of streams have been jammed with mining waste, and untold numbers of historic communities have been impoverished and depopulated.

Bottom line: The Obama administration needs to end all mountaintop removal, one of the most egregious human right and environmental violations, in Appalachia, now.

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward covered the hearing in detail at his blog, Coal Tattoo.

Sutley’s timing could not be urgent: A sense of desperation for federal intervention has gripped the coalfields in Appalachia.

“Our members feel a sense of urgency like never before,” said Jim Foster in a statement this week. Foster is a retired underground miner and member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, whose home in Van, West Virginia, is below another expanding mountaintop removal operation. “Unless the Obama Administration steps in to protect coalfield communities and retrain coal workers, the coal industry is going to take all it can, leaving us poisoned water, abandoned towns and a toxic future.”

Thirty years ago, the movement to abolish strip mining was effectively derailed by the Goliath resources of the coal companies, whose sway on Capitol Hill was no less powerful in the state and township corridors. In the end, federal legislators opted to “regulate” strip mining, instead of banning its undeniable wrath of destruction in the coal areas.

In 1977, in the afterglow of the OPEC energy crisis and a new scramble toward coal production, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, an admittedly “watered down bill” that would enhance “the legitimate and much-needed production of coal.” The president declared that it would also “assuage the fears that the beautiful areas where coal is produced were being destroyed.”

Few residents in the coalfields agreed. In his classic To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia, Chad Montrie described the sense of betrayal of the Appalachian coalition working with the Midwestern heartland advocates, and those living in the ruins of the strip mines: “… the present bill was so weakened by compromise that is no longer promised effective control of the coal industry or adequate protection of citizens’ rights. A press release listed the provisions (or absent provisions) the Coalition found particularly troublesome: an eighteen-month exemption of small operators; recognition of mountaintop removal as an approved mining technique (rather than a variance requiring special approval); language allowing for variance from restoration to approximate original contour; failure to impose slope limitations (or a partial ban on contour mining); and failure to fully protect surface owner rights with a comprehensive consent clause.”

According to long-time anti-stripmining activist Jane Johnson in Illinois, the Act further also allowed a flood of “grandfathering” of old mining contracts to circumvent the new requirements. Johnson wrote in the Illinois South newsletter in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the surface mining act:

The State allowed thousands of acres of prime land to be mined without having to meet the requirements of PL 95-87. Also, farmland could be mined, but there was no criteria written for judging the success of land reclamation. Industry continued to defend its reclamation practices but citizens couldn’t find the bountiful harvest of corn and soybeans alluded to in permit applications. People in the cornbelt felt betrayed.

Nancy Sutley: Appalachia must not be betrayed this time around.

To fully understand the horrific impact of the mountaintop removal blasting and destruction, here is a video of an explosion earlier this week in Peachtree, W. Va.: