Muckraker: Grist on Politics

On Tuesday, North Carolina State Rep. Pricey Harrison introduced legislation in the state House that would ban the burning of coal obtained through mountaintop-removal mining. If it passes, North Carolina would become the first state in the nation with such a law.

The mining method isn’t practiced in North Carolina, but 61 percent of the state’s power comes from coal; North Carolina is second only to Georgia in the amount of MTR-mined coal it burns. According to Appalachian Voices, a group devoted to ending the controversial and destructive mining practice, 13 power plants in North Carolina buy coal from mountaintop-removal mine sites. Most of it comes from nearby West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.

MTR blasts off mountaintops for the purpose of extracting coal, wiping out biodiverse forest habitats and permanently scarring the world’s oldest mountains. The debris left over from the blasts is usually dumped in nearby streams; according to the U.S. EPA, more than 700 miles of streams have been completely buried by mountaintop-removal debris, and thousands of others have been damaged. MTR also causes myriad health problems for nearby residents, in part because mine waste contaminates water supplies.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Harrison, a Democrat who represents Guilford County, told Grist she learned about the hazards of the practice by doing a flyover of West Virginian mountains that had been destroyed by MTR, and by watching the documentary Mountain Top Removal. Since there aren’t regions in her state likely to be affected by the practice, banning the burning of MTR coal seemed like the most logical way to take action.

“I thought this was a pretty abhorrent practice,” says Harrison. “[I] wanted to send a signal to folks in West Virginia and Kentucky that we object to the way they’re being treated and we’re not going to put up with it.”

She equated her bill to a measure the state legislature passed last year that required the state’s pension funds to divest all holdings in companies that do business in Darfur.

“We can’t really impact policy in Darfur, but we can sure limit our investment in Darfur,” says Harrison. “So why don’t we impact policy this way in West Virginia by saying we find these practices objectionable, so we’re not going to participate in the funding?”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Harrison, who was one of the sponsors of the legislation that enacted the first renewable portfolio standard in the Southeast last year, said she expects it will be quite a while before legislation like this could pass. The RPS took two years, and there isn’t likely to be any movement on the MTR bill until January 2009 at the earliest, she says. Still, Harrison hopes her legislation will inspire others.

“I think if enough states got together and did this, then it would create momentum and give some courage to policy makers in West Virginia who might otherwise feel beholden to Big Coal,” she says. “We’re destroying a heritage in Appalachia, so I just hope we can send a signal that this is not acceptable, and this has got to stop.”