On the upcoming anniversary of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, President Barack Obama has the opportunity to declare an armistice in the polarized Appalachian coalfields, mend a 30-year mining policy of betrayal, and call an end to the most divisive and egregious human rights and environmental violation sanctioned by our federal government.
On Aug. 3, the President should keep his campaign promise, travel to Appalachia, and publicly announce a timeline for his administration to formally end mountaintop-removal operations.
While dramatic moves by the EPA to scrutinize and suspend select mountaintop-removal operations in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia are laudable and deeply appreciated by those who have endured the helter-skelter of unchecked strip-mining operations for decades, and while the deliberate move by the Department of Interior to rescind the Bush administration’s mishandling of the 1983 stream buffer zone rule is admirable, one indubitable fact remains: Mountaintop removal is an immoral crime against nature and our citizenry, and it must be abolished, not regulated.
A publicly proposed “roadmap to withdrawal” and an announced “timeline for transition from mountaintop-removal coal to underground coal or alternative clean energy sources” would send a clear signal that the Obama administration will not tolerate human rights abuses on American soil. Aug. 3 is not simply the anniversary of a benign act; it is a sobering cautionary tale for today’s Obama administration and young environmentalists of the catastrophic effects of well-meaning liberal Democrats who engage in compromises with an untenable and ruthless coal industry.
On Aug. 3, 1977, surrounded in the White House Rose Garden by beleaguered coalfield residents and environmentalists who had waged a ten-year campaign to abolish strip-mining, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act with great fanfare. President Carter may have attempted to put on a good face, but he admitted to the 300 guests, according to <em>The New York Times</em>, “in many ways, this has been a disappointing effort.” Calling it a “watered down” bill, Carter added, “I’m not completely satisfied with the legislation. I would prefer to have a stricter strip-mining bill.”
“The President’s other main objection to the bill,” wrote <em>The New York Times</em>, “is that it allows the mining companies to cut off the tops of Appalachian mountains to reach entire seams of coal.” Outraged by this duplicitous compromise to allow the federal sanction of mountaintop-removal mining, an “Appalachian Coalition” of coalfield residents and environmental groups called the SMCRA a “blatant travesty.”
Three decades later, the Appalachian Coalition’s and President Carter’s worst fears have been realized. Over 500 extraordinary mountains — all of which would have easily been recognized as national monuments in other states — have literally been blown to bits; an estimated 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests have been subjected to a scorched earth policy reserved for warfare; over 1,300 miles of headwater streams have been jammed or filled with mining waste.
And the peace and prosperity of some of our nation’s most historic communities have been shattered, locked out from any diversified economy, and forced to bear the burden of a failed mining policy.
“When Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977,” testified Joe Lovett, the executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, at an Oversight Hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resource on the 30th anniversary of the SMCRA, “it thought that it was enacting a law to protect the environment and citizens of the region. OSM has used, and has allowed the states to use, the Act as a perverse tool to justify the very harm that Congress sought to prevent. The Members of Congress who voted to pass the Act in 1977 could not have imagined the cumulative destruction that would be visited on our region by the complete failure of the regulators to enforce the Act.”
All well-meaning intentions aside, this is what Aug. 3 will represent under our current policy: An estimated 540 million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives will have ripped across and devastated our nation’s oldest and most diverse mountains since President Obama took office in January.
With military-like precision at 4 p.m. on that day, Vietnam veteran Bo Webb’s ancestral family cemetery and vegetable garden in Clay’s Branch in West Virginia, for example, will be blanketed with silica dust and heavy metals from strip-mining blasts, while other gallbladder disease-stricken American citizens in neighboring coalfield areas will lug bottled water into their contaminated kitchens and bathrooms. Down the valley, teachers at the Marsh Fork Elementary School will be readying to return to work, as nearby mountaintop-removal explosives send shocks through the earthen walls of a high ridge pond that holds back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge a few football fields above their heads.
On that same day in August, untold tons of coal stripped from mountaintop-removal mines in these areas of central Appalachia will have been mined, processed, shipped, and used in the Potomac River coal-fired plant to generate the electricity for the White House during Obama’s first 180 days.
In effect, by Aug. 3, the White House will have decided Appalachia’s fate.
That is why it is imperative that President Obama make a public stand on this scandal, while his outstanding and dedicated administrators at the EPA, Department of Interior, and Council on Environmental Quality continue their measured actions to enforce the weak laws and regulations.
By standing at the site of a mountaintop-removal amphitheatre of destruction, declaring “Armistice Day” in the coalfields, and announcing an Appalachian Revitalization Program for green jobs and renewable energy manufacturing plants, a massive Appalachian Reforestation and Heavy Machinery Jobs Program, and a fund dedicated to the national service and health and pension plans of the United Mine Workers, President Obama can truly bring peace and justice to our nation’s coalfields.