The Bush administration is poised to issue regulations today that would legalize and expand the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. We speak with Appalachian activist Vernon Haltom of Coal River Mountain Watch. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Bush administration is poised to issue regulations today that would legalize and expand the controversial mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The techniques involve blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.
The regulation was drafted by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. If enacted, coal operators would be exempt from a 1983 law that prohibits surface coal mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams.
Environmental activists say the rule was ignored for years and has already caused 2,000 miles of streams to be permanently polluted. They warn that the rule change will only accelerate the pillage of vast tracts of land in central Appalachia and hasten the annihilation of perennial streams. Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder called the proposed rule a "disgrace."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined on the phone from West Virginia by Vernon Haltom. He’s the co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, which is an Appalachian grassroots group fighting for social and environmental justice for people living near mountaintop removal sites. Vernon, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what is being proposed today, these regulations by the Bush administration?
VERNON HALTOM: Basically, what the rule change would do would be to make legal what has been illegal for 20 years. The rule change uses terms like "avoid" and " practicable" and "minimize" and "be no larger than needed." Basically, what the — you know, what the rule essentially does is remove any protections to the streams. It pretty much explicitly allows valley fills. And these valley fills are not just, you know, tiny little piles of rubble. These are sometimes miles long. You know, when you talk about thousands of miles of streams being polluted, well, burying the streams is a very extreme form of pollution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And if these laws have been in place now for more than 20 years, why have so many streams continued to be polluted? About 1,200 miles of streams since 1992 alone in Appalachia?
VERNON HALTOM: Yeah. Of those 1,200 miles, 700 miles have been just buried. What happens is the permitting agencies grant variances, and they grant variances just pretty much willy-nilly. All the coal operator has to do is request a variance, and they’re granted pretty easily. Unfortunately, you know, this rule change would remove even that requirement.
And what we’ve been wanting, what we’ve been wanting for years, is that the existing rule be enforced. A couple of years ago, in 2005, when we had hearings and the Office of Surface Mining asked us what — you know, what we wanted to see in the moving forward of this rule and what we’d like them to examine, we asked them, "We don’t want you to waste taxpayers’ money doing another environmental impact study. We know the environmental impact. It’s devastating. Enforce the existing rule." But they’ve ignored that.
AMY GOODMAN: Vernon Haltom, can you explain what mountaintop removal is? Explain exactly how it works.
VERNON HALTOM: OK. It’s a pretty easy process. First they remove all the vegetation, all the forest, so they clear cut thousands of acres of trees and usually burn or bury the timber. Then they use explosives to blow up chunks of the mountain, a chunk at time. Mostly what they use is ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the same mix that Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
And this is — you know, that’s a big portion of our fight, because the quantities of explosive used are devastating to communities. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s explosives yearbook, from 2000 — in 2005 in West Virginia alone, 474,000 metric tons of explosives were used. And that seems like a big number, but to put it in more tangible terms, that’s the explosive force of 27 Hiroshima-style atomic bombs. The mainstream media won’t report that, but no region can withstand that kind of bombing year after year after year.
And so, you’ve blown up chunks of the mountain, cracked and destroyed the waters — you know, the aquifers in the mountain, and then you dump the rubble into streams and valleys. And that’s — and if you think of a mountain as being like a layer cake with the coal as the icing in between the layers, they do that, and they throw away the cake, get the icing, throw away the cake, and get the icing, until it’s all gone.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the impact on the communities surrounding these mountains? And what’s been the social cost of this kind of mining?
VERNON HALTOM: Oh, the social costs are that this area of Appalachia is being depopulated. I mean, we’re treated as a third world resource colony.
One of the, you know, extreme problems resulting from this is the flooding. When you remove thousands and thousands of acres of trees and remove the topsoil and root systems and natural contours of the mountain, you have extreme runoff. Federal studies have shown that the runoff is increased, and in practical terms what that amounts to is flooding in these communities. In 1997 and in year 2001, some of these communities were horribly flooded: Homes were destroyed, people were killed. So, you know, that’s a horrible social cost to pay for someone else’s profits.
You know, we hear about coal being cheap. Well, coal is not cheap when you consider all the externalized costs that are borne by these communities. It’s really — it is unbearable. And so what you have, you have depopulation, you have decreased jobs. Mountaintop removal requires fewer miners, and therefore fewer jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: Vernon Haltom, how does this tie into — these regulations that are being released today on coal mining, mountaintop removal — how do they relate to what we’re seeing in Salt Lake City, the six miners who appear to have been lost, never have been found?
VERNON HALTOM: Well, what we’re seeing is the coal industry is going to use this as — to use those deaths to try to justify more mountaintop removal. And I believe I’ve seen at least one editorial that mountaintop removal is safer, so you’d never have to worry about someone being buried in it. And, you know, from '99 through 2003 or 2004, the, you know, most fatalities occurred on the surface, so mountaintop removal is not safer, when underground mining safety regulations are enforced and complied with. And it's certainly not safer for the communities. I mean, the communities around here are paying the price for this. And, you know, when the industry has some people die in an underground mine that’s had several safety violations, they say that we have to do mountaintop removal because it’s safer. That’s simply not the case. So that’s how it’s tying in. The industry is going to use those deaths as a public relations gimmick to promote mountaintop removal.
They’re also saying it’s for energy security. There’s nothing secure about having this warfare going on in your homeland, because what this rule change amounts to is a declaration of war against the Appalachian people. It is — you know, I don’t want to candy-coat anything. This is a very, very serious situation. And we’re tired of one industry that really employs a small fraction, actually, of West Virginians and Appalachians dominating both our politics and our lives.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And if there’s so much opposition from the local communities, why have the political — what’s been the role of the political leadership in West Virginia and other Appalachian — other states where the Appalachians are located?
VERNON HALTOM: The political leadership in Appalachia is owned and operated by the coal industry. I’ll just say that straight up. In West Virginia, very, very few of our legislators are willing to take a stand, because the industry has so much money and they put so much into political campaigns and propaganda.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you name the companies that benefit?
VERNON HALTOM: Hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you name the companies that benefit?
VERNON HALTOM: Companies that benefit, you have Massey Energy, you have Arch Coal. Most of these companies, or at least a large number of them, are headquartered outside the state. The companies benefit, the politicians benefit, and the people suffer.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll continue to follow this story. Vernon Haltom is co-director of the Coal River Mountain Watch, an Appalachian grassroots organization, as the Bush administration issues today regulations that will expand the coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal.