When President Barack Obama’s staff turns on the lights to the Oval Office this week, a signal will be sent from the Potomac Energy Company to the Chalk Point Generation Station, where the coal-handling facility service of the power plant will shovel in coal that has been strip-mined from the clear-cut, toppled-over, and exploded mountains of West Virginia.
At least, in theory.
In effect, President Obama and his administration are now connected to one of the most tragic environmental and human rights disasters in American history — the employment of mountaintop-removal mining methods in Appalachia that have eliminated over 470 mountains and adjacent communities, 1 million acres of hardwood forests, and 1,200 miles of streams from our American maps.
This includes Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, the last great mountain in a historic range that has been on the forefront of the clean-energy movement. Citing the unique wind potential of Coal River Mountain, local citizens and coal miners have pushed for an industrial wind farm that would provide 200 jobs, enough megawatts for 150,000 homes in the area, and $1.7 million in tax revenues. Last week, however, as Obama visited a wind-turbine parts factory in Ohio, the first bulldozers arrived to clearcut the forest and open the way for the next mountaintop-removal tragedy.
This area also includes the hollows of Fayette County, West Virginia, where a teenage African-American followed his brothers into the coal mines in the 1890s, serving what Carter Woodson called his “six-year apprenticeship.” In the evenings, Woodson listened to the extraordinary stories of black coal miners. As Woodson learned, the origins of coal mining in colonial America, like the early cotton and rice industries, dated back to the role of black slaves.
As one of our country’s most celebrated historians, Woodson went on to become the “Father of Black History” and founder of Black History Month. In a speech at Hampton Institute in Virginia, Woodson reminded the audience: “We have a wonderful history behind us … If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ They will say to you, ‘Who are you anyway?'”
Appalachians understand this bitter historical reality more than any other citizens in the United States. Black Appalachians, especially.
A century after Woodson’s labor in the coal mines in West Virginia, another “first” took place in Fayette County. In 1970, the first mountaintop-removal operation was launched in Cannelton Hollow. Thirty-eight years later, the quick and dirty option of highly mechanized mountaintop removal has resulted in massive coal-mining job losses, soaring poverty, polluted waterways, and the demise of hope in the Appalachian region.
This destruction has not happened out of need, but a myopic coveting for cheap production. Coal stripped from mountaintop-removal methods provides less than 5 percent of our nationwide coal production; over 50 million tons of coal from West Virginia alone are exported abroad. In fact, any demand for mountaintop-removal coal could easily be handled by production in other states, or simply eliminated through energy-efficiency measures and renewable energy sources.
As former Vice President Al Gore has stated in public, “mountaintop removal is a crime, and ought to be treated as a crime.”
Last December, however, the departing Environmental Protection Agency head Stephen Johnson agreed to an order to do away with a 25-year-old law regulating the dumping of coal mining waste into waterways, unleashing a new generation of destruction on Appalachia.
In the first hundred days of his administration, working under lights generated by mountaintop-removal coal, President Obama, energy point person Carol Browner, and EPA head Lisa Jackson must reverse this reckless decision by the EPA, and more aggressively enforce the Stream Buffer rule and Clean Water Act laws. At the same time, any economic recovery must include education and retraining, such as a G.I. Bill for coal miners, to lay the groundwork for a shift to clean energy jobs.
More importantly, President Obama and his administration can effectively end the crime of mountaintop removal by giving their support to the H.R. 2169 bill passing through Congress now, which will establish the Clean Water Protection Act, and calls for protection of our nation’s coalfield communities by not allowing industries to indiscriminately pollute and bury waterways, and seemingly destroy their lives through strip mining.
All Americans are connected to the tragedy of mountaintop removal. It’s time to start the process of illuminating the White House, and our own homes, with clean energy.