mountaintop removal
Mountaintop removal operation, Boone County, West Virginia

In its latest tinkering with coal mining regulations, the Bush administration continues a pattern of narrowing the legal rights of local citizens and giving ever greater control to coal companies, regulators, and political officials.

The Office of Surface Mining’s proposed revision to current standards would ease restrictions on strip mining near streams—the so-called “buffer zone” rule. Rather than prohibiting mining within 100 feet of a stream, the new language calls for mines to respect the buffer zone only “to the extent practicable.” This change would further insulate mountaintop-removal coal mines from legal opposition.

Mountaintop removal is both more intensive and more extensive than earlier strip mine practices.
Mining operations of this type in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee commonly shear off several hundred vertical feet of mountain to extract seams of coal, leaving damaged sites that sprawl across the landscape; some scarred mine sites encompass over 10,000 contiguous acres.

The Bush administration seeks to change the language in federal regulations to accommodate mining practices that have been challenged in court. As with modifications to the Clean Water Act in 2002, the administration has proposed revisions of strip mining laws after local citizens and organizations mounted successful legal challenges against mountaintop removal.

The first of several cases argued by Joe Lovett, of the Appalachian Center for Economy and Environment, challenged the practice of dumping mine waste into streams, as is routine with large scale strip mine operations. A Federal Circuit Court agreed that the Clean Water Act prohibits such dumping. But by changing a few words in the regulations, the Bush Environmental Protection Agency effectively scaled back the Clean Water Act without legislative debate. It undermined the court, and took away from coalfield citizens a valuable legal protection.

OSM’s proposed changes reflect how far removed state and federal regulators are from the experience of citizens who live near mines. Officials deal with arcane language and definitions of “stream buffers” and “fill material,” while coalfield residents must cope with the myriad effects of mining on their communities. Blasting rattles homes throughout the region and spews dust into the air. Floods have become more violent and more frequent. Now, the mountains are dotted with huge lagoons full of toxic liquid waste from coal processing.

mountaintop removal highway
Highwall, a result of mountaintop removal mining

Since coal generates over 50% of electricity in the United States, the lights stay on in cities around the country. Writing in Friday’s Washington Post, Jeff Goodell correctly points out that most Americans are unaware how dependent they are on coal. Nor do they know how that coal is produced— in dangerous underground conditions like Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine, or barren strip mines carved out of rich Appalachian forests.

Coalfield activists have been resourceful in opposing mountaintop removal. Their battle is one internal front in a larger fight: to preserve democracy at the community level against outside government and corporate force. Their mountains and homes have already been degraded by strip mining; now with the erosion of their legal rights, how will citizens have a say in what happens to their communities?

Bryan McNeil is an anthropologist living in Winston-Salem, NC.

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