A mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va

The EPA's West Virginia coal mining smackdown

"Big Coal" author Jeff Goodell explains why the government move to close a mountaintop mine is a major event


Andrew Leonard
January 14, 2011 11:15PM (UTC)

On Thursday, the EPA sent shock waves through the environmental movement and the coal industry when it announced it was revoking the permit for a huge mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia. After two weeks in which House Republicans have made it clear that one of their top priorities is crippling the EPA, the agency's decision seemed a forthright declaration that it will not back down. Salon asked Jeff Goodell, author of "Big Coal," to explain the context.

Why is the EPA's announcement that has revoked the permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia a big deal?

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Because it shows that the EPA is finally willing to do its job and enforce the laws on mountaintop removal mining. Ever since the Bush administration came in and gutted the EPA and changed some of the rules for mountaintop removal mining, the industry has gotten away with whatever it wants. There are rules on the books about dumping waste into the streams around the mines, but there has been no enforcement. The revoking of this permit sends a very clear signal that the agency is now going to enforce the laws, and they are going to protect the water supplies of this region, and not just roll over for Big Coal.

The mine operator is saying that revoking a permit that has already been granted opens the door to a wave of similar actions.

This should not be read as a blanket statement that EPA is going to revoke a lot of permits that have already been given. This is about a particularly enormous mountaintop removal operation -- 2,300 acres. It was going to cause seven miles of streams to be buried. EPA had been engaged in negotiations with Arch Coal, the coal company, for a year, trying to get them to change their mining plans to do this in a way that was less destructive to the streams and the region, and they didn't come to an agreement. And so EPA did what it should do. Which is pull the permit.

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Does this signal the end of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia?

No, but it is important. What is happening, broadly speaking, is that West Virginia is getting mined out. All the cheap, easy-to-get coal is gone. And at the same time, West Virginia is facing increasing competition from Wyoming, where they can dig coal out of the ground for a fraction of the price of West Virginia coal. So to stay competitive, West Virginia has been forced to go to cheaper and cheaper ways of getting it out of the ground. Tunneling after the coal is simply too expensive and nobody will buy the coal if they have to do it that way.

What does a mountaintop removal mining site look like?

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It was actually a visit to a mountaintop removal mine that first prompted me to write about the coal industry. The New York Times asked me to go to West Virginia to look at the comeback of the coal industry, in the early days of the Bush administration. I had heard about these mines but never seen one. While driving I saw the boom of a drag line, which is the big sort of shovel that they use to move the earth around. I pulled off the road, and climbed up this hill, and looked down into the mine. It's just unbelievable, the scale and scope of these things. The mountain had been disemboweled, there was all of this enormous machinery, and at the moment I climbed up there they happened to be blasting, so the ground was shaking. It was like peering into the world of the orcs. It was like, oh, this is where my electrons come from, that are powering my iPod.

But the other thing that struck me out there, was not just the environmental destruction, but the economic mayhem. If mining coal was going to bring prosperity to anybody it would be the state of West Virginia, which is the ancestral home of coal in the U.S. If it was an economic winner they'd be dancing on gold-paved streets there. But what I saw was broken cities, broken town after broken town, poverty and sickness. By most public health indicators, West Virginia is at the bottom of the list, and it just made me understand what was really going on here, which is that West Virginia was a resource colony for the rich corporations that are pulling this coal out of the ground.

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West Virginia's Democratic politicians have been livid about the permit revocation. Sen. Joe Manchin called it "fundamentally wrong."

Coal has been the engine of the economy there for a very long time. The coal industry basically runs the state, and has for a very long time. And it has been very good at keeping everybody barefoot and pregnant for the last 50- years,while keeping up this fiction that the economic health of the state is dependent on coal. But what is happening now is that we are reaching a turning point. As I said earlier West Virginia coal is getting mined out, and production is declining. Even Sen. Byrd, who was the biggest advocate of coal ever, right before he died he said West Virginia needs to think differently about its future because the era of coal is coming to its close. So what you are seeing with Manchin is the last gasp of backward politicians who have not yet made the turn to realize that they have to reimagine the future of that state, especially when you think of the inevitability of carbon legislation coming sometime down the road.

Inevitability? The new Republican leadership of the House is dead set against any action on climate change, and in the last two weeks have made it clear that shackling the EPA is one of their biggest priorities. Don't you expect that they'll use the EPA's action here as ammunition in their campaign to paint the EPAs as overreaching?

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I don't know how this will play politically. Yes, the Republicans will say this is an example of government putting people out of work at a time when we can least afford it, all the usual rhetoric. But you don't have to have a Ph.D. in geology to understand the problems of mountaintop removal mining. It's the most dramatic thing you can possibly see. It's very obvious. You don't need to be a scientist to know, that when you blow up a mountain and bury streams with millions of cubic feet of rock and earth those streams are destroyed. This is not a subtle science, this is not like global warming where you can't see the CO2 molecules, and you can argue that any individual weather event is not related. This is pretty clear stuff.

Won't this now be litigated for years?

But that's always the case. Every decision that goes against the industry is litigated for years, and that's why progress is so slow. I think more broadly, the big target for the new Congress, as far as the EPA goes, are the greenhouse gas regulations, which will have far far greater impact than this one, on any scale. In spite of all the smoke and yelling and screaming right now, I don't think the big powerhouses like the Chamber of Commerce really care about mountaintop removal mining and the revoking of this permit, except to the degree that it can be used as a symbolic thing against the EPA. But the greenhouse gas thing they really do care about. And that is where all their fire is going to be concentrated.

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Do you think that the decision by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to crack down on mountaintop removal signals how far she is willing to go on greenhouse gases?

I do think that this is a signal that the EPA is going to be playing hardball. But you know, the EPA's pursuit of greenhouse gas regulation is not optional. They are under court order to do it, and from what I can see Lisa Jackson is pretty determined to follow this through.

Why couldn't the coal company come to terms with the EPA?

I think this is an industry that is used to getting its way. During the entire Bush administration, the eight years of the Bush administration, they did things the way they wanted to do things. So there is some bluster in this -- you don't mess around with us, we're in charge here. But this is a not, how shall we put it, a dynamic industry, in the sense of innovation and change. They want to do things their way, they want to do things the old-fashioned way, they don't want to change, and they don't believe they need to. This is an industry that is used to getting by on political muscle and not on compromise.

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How much of the environmentalist concern about mountaintop removal is generated outside of West Virginia?

That is a big myth. I think one of the huge failures of the environmental movement is not paying closer attention and not doing more to highlight what is happening in West Virginia. The fight against mountaintop removal mining is completely from the people who live there. It's from people like Judy Bonds, who just died the other day, and who was a bona fide American hero. She was a 5-foot-2-inch former wife of a coal miner, grew up in a coal camp. A big mountaintop removal mine came into her hamlet and basically destroyed the place her family had been in for generations and she got pissed off. She became this incredibly passionate voice, saying I am a West Virginian, this is the place I love, and this coal company is raping and pillaging this incredibly precious and beautiful place in order to make a few bucks.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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