Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) has gotten more attention from environmental and social justice advocates in recent months, including the Goracle himself.

“Mountaintop removal is a crime and ought to be treated as a crime,” Gore said in April. He was addressing the audience at the 2008 Nashville Film Festival, where he presented director Michael O’Connell the 2008 “Reel Current Award” for his film, Mountain Top Removal.

The practice continues largely unfettered, however, and it has become an ever-more-common method of gaining access to coal reserves. But a growing group of legislators is hoping to instate a law that would make it harder for coal companies to continue the practice.

MTR blasts off mountaintops for the purpose of extracting coal, which wipes out biodiverse forest habitats and permanently scars some of the world’s oldest mountains. The debris left over from the blasts is usually dumped in nearby streams. The EPA estimates that more than 700 miles of streams have been completely buried by mountaintop removal debris, while thousands of stream beds have been severely damaged. It is also a nightmare for the residents of Appalachia. Dumping the debris in nearby waterways causes frequent, catastrophic flooding, as well as health problems for nearby residents — mine waste contaminates water supplies.

Short of banning the practice completely, legislators and advocates are hoping they’ll be able to curb some of the most egregious effects of MTR.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Energy and Natural Resources Chair Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) sent a letter [PDF] to the Government Accountability Office recently asking them to review proposed revisions to the stream buffer zone and the general impacts of MTR, citing fears that the practice was detrimental to both the landscape and citizens.

“The practice has far-reaching negative effects on local citizens and the environment,” said the senators, urging the GAO to take up detailed study of the practice.

In the House, 142 legislators are backing the Clean Water Protection Act, which would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste. That would cut mining companies off from what’s become their free dumping ground.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), has gathered 141 co-sponsors since it was introduced in May 2007. The site ilovemountains.org is following the bill closely and has the resources to write your representative in support of the measure.

They’ve also got a neat interactive map where you can see your connection to MTR. And their most recent addition is a video series on the country’s most endangered mountains. At least 470 Appalachian mountains have already been destroyed by MTR, but the series looks at the ones that can still be saved, and follows the folks in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee who are working to protect them.