Dec. 18, 2004 – Appalachian environmental groups yesterday accused the coal industry and government regulators of attempting to cover up the long-term affects of a devastating form of strip mining by signing a "restoration initiative." The groups -- some of which were themselves asked to join in signing the non-binding agreement to "to promote the planting of high-value hardwood trees on reclaimed coal mines" -- said they were in favor of attempts to reforest mined areas, but said their priority was to obtain a moratorium on all new "mountaintop removal" mining projects.
"We certainly agree that coal companies must make every attempt to restore our native forests to strip-mined lands," said West Virginia environmental activist and coal-minerâ€™s daughter Judy Bonds, in a press statement about the initiative. "But we need more details about this project. If this initiative is just another justification for mountaintop removal -- a completely unnecessary and hugely damaging coal-mining process that must be banned now -- then we canâ€™t support it." Bonds works with Coal River Mountain Watch, a small, local organization struggling to combat the destructive effects of mountaintop removal mining on their community.
A type of strip mining little known outside of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee, mountaintop removal is an especially extreme coal extraction technique. Using heavy explosives and large machinery, coal companies blast and scrape up to 800 feet off the top of mountains to expose the thin coal seams underneath. The coal is removed, and the "overburden" -- everything left --- is pushed into the neighboring valleys.
PHOTO: A massive dragline, dwarfed by the huge scale of the operation, at work on a mountaintop removal operation near Kayford Mountain, W.Va Oct. 19, 2003. Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion
In areas where mountaintop removal mining is prevalent, once rolling mountains are replaced with naked sores and polluted slurry ponds filled with the toxic leftovers of the coal washing process.
On Wednesday, coal industry representatives and federal regulators gathered in Roanoke, West Virginia to sign a "Statement of Mutual Intent for the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative." The document, which was drafted by the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), encourages forest restoration through soil grading techniques, use of noncompetitive ground vegetative covers, and planting fast-growing as well as "commercially valuable" trees.
Though a press release circulated before the signing stated that environmental organizations would be endorsing the initiative, several of the regionâ€™s prominent groups refused to oblige.
Some groups said they did not even know about the initiative before hand and expressed cynicism over OSMREâ€™s motives.
PHOTO: Marfork Coal's (a Massey Energy subsidiary) Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, which, at its final stage, will hold 8 billions of gallon of coal waste sludge. The impoundment partially lies over old underground mines and is directly upstream from the town of Whitesville, W. Va. May 30, 2003. Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion
"The way the statement is written, it sounds like mountain range removal is fine, as long as the coal companies try to plant some trees," said Vernon Haltom, a volunteer with Coal River Mountain Watch.
"This statement does admit, however, that forests are vitally important for soil and water conservation, water quality, hydrologic balance and carbon sequestration," Haltom added in his press statement. "Perhaps the coal industry will finally admit that forested mountaintops arenâ€™t worthless, after all."
At least two organizations -- the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition -- were asked ahead of time if they wanted to sign onto the initiative. Both refused.
"OSM and its cohorts appear to be trying to justify more mountaintop removal mining," said Jenet Fout, who co-directs the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, in a statement to the press. "We certainly want the industry and regulators to do everything possible to get native hardwoods growing on already destroyed lands, but we want a moratorium on any new mountaintop removal activity until the industry proves it can restore mined lands, as well as our precious headwater streams."
A 2003 Environmental Protection Agency study in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee found that approximately 1,200 miles of headwater streams had been polluted by valley fills and toxic coal sludge between 1992 and 2002.
Fout said she was skeptical about the feasibility of the initiative, given the biological diversity of West Virginiaâ€™s forests. "Letâ€™s be honest," she said. "The best the industry can do, if it actually spends the vast sums that will be required to fulfill this pledge, is to plant tree farms. Shallow-rooted pines will likely grow, but what are the long-term prospects for hardwoods? â€˜Reforestationâ€™ isnâ€™t going to happen on strip-mined lands."
Activists working to end the mining practice have taken to calling their communities "national sacrifice areas" for the nationâ€™s cheap energy.
According to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, mountaintop removers have already converted over 500 square miles of forested mountains into treeless moonscapes where nothing can grow. Thousands more are permitted for ruin.
PHOTO: Mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining in southern West Virginia in May 2003 Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition