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In coal country, heat rises over latest method of mining

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But critics say it devastates the environment, particularly the forest ecosystems and the many streams buried under soil and debris blasted from the mountaintops. By conservative estimates, more than 1,200 miles of streams have been affected and 350 square miles of mountain land destroyed.

This fall, four federal agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Office of Surface Mining - issued a long-delayed Environmental Impact Statement on the practice. The study, originally intended to minimize harm from mountaintop mining, shifted in 2001 when then-deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles redirected it to focus on "centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting" - which the final EIS does. The change infuriated environmentalists, who claim the government is weakening environmental regulations to help the mining industry.

"A lot of what has renewed the growth of mountaintop removal mining in the last four years has to be attributed to Bush administration policies that have removed any obstacle, including local citizens, standing in between industry and the mountains," says Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel at EarthJustice, an environmental law group. She cites a 2002 rule change that designates rubble from the blast as fill rather than as waste, and a plan to ease a restriction on mining within 100 feet of a stream.

The mining industry, for its part, says the mines operate with the strongest environmental regulations in the world. Moreover, coal is an increasingly important source of energy within US borders, says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.

"You have to look at what you're disturbing versus what you're offering your country," he says. Coal technology is cleaner than ever, he adds, and with oil prices high, many are looking to coal to meet America's energy needs.

Mr. Popovich and Mr. Frisby point to the many mining jobs in West Virginia, as well as to indirect jobs like trucking and manufacturing. "These are the kinds of jobs that can hold a community together year after year and sustain it through ups and downs," says Popovich.

To some, costs outweigh benefits
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