Coal in the classroom

Coal in the classroom

Opposition to mountaintop removal mining is becoming part of the curriculum at a growing number of colleges and universities.

On Election Day, Dave Cooper stood in the President’s Dining Room at Hollins University and made a solemn announcement.

“I’m an environmental activist,” he told more than two dozen college students who had carried their lunch down the hall. “To some people, that means ‘wacko.’ “

Cooper is an engineer by training, a former employee of 3M who quit that job to spread the word about mountaintop removal coal mining.

Supported by honorariums from colleges and contributions from environmental organizations, he takes the Mountaintop Removal Road Show around the eastern United States.

“That helps cover my travel expenses but mostly I sleep on couches and eat peanut butter sandwiches and cereal,” the 47-year-old Cooper e-mailed between sessions in Ohio.

He’s in the middle of a 12-state tour, appearing often on college campuses. He used to visit student environmental groups. Now, he often brings opposition to mountaintop removal mining into the classroom as well.

More than one professor has called that a no-brainer.

RU professor Jeremy Wojdak was happy to have Cooper address his pollution biology class. Students have read and talked a lot about theory, Wojdak said. The roadshow was their introduction to how issues play out in the real world.

“I think, at the very least, hearing someone with first-hand experience gets the students’ attention in a way that won’t if I tell them,” Wojdak said.

Laura Meder, an Averett University professor who teaches courses in environmental problems and environmental policy and law, said, “I wanted people to get a chance to hear from people who face this in their daily lives. For these two classes that I teach it’s a really good real-life example.”

Last year, Cooper brought Pauline Canterberry and Mary Miller to Meder’s Danville classroom. The two elderly women brought bags of coal dust that had settled on their porch and stories about a mine and processing plant devaluing their home and degrading their lives.

This time Cooper brought Eric Blevins, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, who helped convince students to impose a fee on themselves so the university could buy electricity from renewable sources.

The hair Cooper has left is short. He favours khakis and a tweed jacket.

Blevins’ hair falls halfway down his back. He’s bearded. He wears jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt with the “Defend what you love” printed across the front.

They have a bifurcated routine. Cooper lays out the problem, explaining the mountaintop removal process and playing a DVD or slide show that expands on what he’s said. Then Blevins suggests things that can be done about it.

Cooper and Blevins rolled the roadshow into a Radford University classroom a little more than a week ago. It was early afternoon. The room was warm and stuffy. Nevertheless — with the exception of one young man who wrestled with his apparently leaden eyelids — Cooper and Blevins held the undergraduates’ attention through explanations of federal mining laws and descriptions of the effects of mountaintop removal mining.

The students heard about valley fills, blackwater spills, overburden, floods and approximate original contour. About 3 million pounds of explosives are used on Appalachian strip mines every day, Cooper told the students.

Jennifer Bowman shook her head, her eyes widening as the statistics and pictures flashed by.

She knew about mountaintop removal mining, but the scale surprised her.

“I don’t know how we can do something as bad as this and get away with it,” Bowman said. “I just think it’s really sad and something ought to be done about it.”

That’s the response Cooper hopes for. He passes out clipboards at each session, asking students to sign up if they’re interested in learning more or helping the cause.

“If you’re really, really interested, put a star by your name,” he said in Radford.

At Radford, he also promoted a gathering at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., a site that’s become familiar to people familiar with the anti-mountaintop removal movement. The remnants of Larry Gibson’s family farm is surrounded by mountaintop removal mines. Marsh Fork Elementary School is near the foot of Kayford Mountain. A mountaintop removal mine, with the attendant sludge pond and coal silo, looms over the school.

About 60 students visited Gibson the weekend after Cooper and Blevins visited Radford. A third of those students came from Radford University.

Julia Hasty, a member of the school’s Green Team, was among them.

“This weekend woke me up,” she wrote in an e-mail the day after returning. “It was definitely an emotional experience. On Saturday night we all gathered around a fire and talked about all we had seen and felt. … It was really sad when we left. It was sad to me that I was going back to a coal-dependent university that was paid for by the blood and children of the people that I had met and befriended in the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia.

“I swear I’ll make a change. I just need help.”

Meder wishes she’d hear more talk like that from her students.

“This is not a very activist campus,” she said of Averett. “I wish that it were.”

At Hollins, Godard is trying to get students interested in environmental issues by relating them to social justice issues.

“It’s this big push we’ve got going and these guys are part of it,” Godard said.

There’s apparently no similar push to bring pro-mining forces into college classrooms.

The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, which is working on clean coal technology, is based at Virginia Tech. The Powell River Project, which explores ways to reuse land that’s been surface-mined, has roots at Tech, too. Both groups have educational programs, but they are aimed at elementary or high school students.

Wojdak, the Radford professor, said he’s sure the one-sidedness of the presentation disturbs some students, but there’s only so much he can do about that.

“They’re our one and only guest speaker,” Wojdak said, “for budgetary reasons.”

Coal-sludge dam hazardous to school

Coal sludge dam hazardous to school

By Bo Webb and Vivian Stockman

NEAR their mining operations, often at the heads of hollows, coal companies construct dams from mine refuse. Behind the dams, they create slurry or sludge lakes, which store the liquid waste left over from washing and processing coal at coal preparation plants.

There are about 150 active coal-sludge impoundments and several hundred inactive or abandoned impoundments in West Virginia. Some impoundments sit near or above schools — such as the Marsh Fork Elementary School on W.Va. 3 in Raleigh County. About 270 children, from kindergarten through grade 5, are enrolled in Marsh Fork, which was built in the late 1930s, and then rebuilt in the ‘60s after a fire.

Coal mining operations began around the school in the early 1980s. In 1985, a sludge dam was built above the school. About 300 yards from the school, a coal-preparation plant was built. (Note that there are at least two lawsuits pending, filed by sick coal-prep plant workers against manufacturers of the chemicals used in coal-prep plants. The workers contend that those chemicals made them ill.)

A silo for storing and loading coal towers over the school, just 160 feet from the school’s air intake vents. These operations changed hands a couple of times; they are now owned by Massey Energy.

In late 2003, Massey filed for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection to surface and mountaintop mine 1,849 acres above the school and behind the sludge dam. The dam would not only hold waste from the prep plant, but it would also be used as a sediment pond for the surface mining operations.

This expansion of mining around Marsh Fork horrified some parents and the members of the citizen group Coal River Mountain Watch. The group has spoken with a worker who helped construct the dam. He details violations in construction that compromise the compaction of the dam face. This miner fears that an 80-by-40-foot section of the dam remains unstable to this day. The blasting associated with mountaintop-removal coal mining could possibly weaken the dam face and the impoundment floor.

In addition, several teachers and students report headaches and asthma (in at least one case, relieved when the student was transferred to a different school). Some, including teenage former students, have either contracted or died from cancer.

Coal River Mountain Watch worked to draw attention to the problem, holding local rallies, talking with the media, collecting 800 signatures on a petition, and contacting state agencies as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has an ongoing investigation. On June 15, 2004, EPA arrived to start an investigation focused on the sludge dam, the prep plant, the coal-loading silo behind the school, the blasting, and all related mining activities near the school. The investigation is apparently ongoing.

However, Stephanie Timmermeyer of the state Department of Environmental Protection, insists that Massey is doing everything according to the regulations and that the dam poses no threat to the schoolchildren.

The DEP did note that the state Division of Health and Human Resources’ cancer registry determined that the area around the school does have a high rate of cancer, but that was due to tobacco use and old age. Coal River Mountain Watch followed up with Pat Colsher at the health agency. She said that, yes, the Sundial area is a cancer cluster, but no one could determine if it was tobacco-related or age-related without a thorough investigation. Coal River has since written two letters to Ms Colsher, asking for that thorough investigation, suggesting she obtain a roster of the school for the past 15 years, attempt to track down those folks and determine what health issues they may have. She has not responded.

Coal River also contacted [former] Gov. Wise about the situation. Timmermeyer responded for Wise, again stating that all the chemicals used at the mine site are approved by the EPA. A Coal River volunteer reminded the DEP chief that all chemicals used in the United States are approved by the EPA, including household cleaners — but that does not mean that your kid should inhale a bottle of Mr Clean.

Coal River Mountain Watch has contacted every agency it can think of, but the group just seems to get the runaround. The group, along with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and concerned citizens from Mingo County, has formed the Sludge Safety Project to work together for the implementation of safety measures for this and other coal-sludge impoundments looming above schools and communities.

Fortunately, coal-sludge impoundments are not necessary. Some coal companies are already using alternative, dry methods to dispose of coal waste. These methods are currently more expensive than ponds. However, considering that public health and safety are at stake, the extra cost is more than worth it.

Please visit the Sludge Safety Project Web site ( to learn more about our efforts.

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork
Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork

Before being transported to market, coal must be washed to separate it from the surrounding soil and rock–the more impurities a company can remove from coal, the higher its market value and the lesser the transportation costs. The washing process generates huge volumes of liquid waste, while the mining process generates millions of tons of solid waste. The cheapest way for coal companies to deal with some of this waste is by constructing dams from the solid mining refuse (that is, rocks and soil) to impound the liquid waste. (In mountaintop removal coal mining, some of the solid refuse is dumped directly into valleys). Coal companies usually build these dams in the heads of hollows (valleys), close to their coal processing plants.

The dams and impounded slurry or sludge are often euphemistically referred to as “ponds,” but “toxic lake” is the accurate name, as coal sludge impoundments can store billions of gallons of liquid coal waste.

Coal companies say the sludge contains mostly water, rocks and mud.  But sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.

Marfork Coal Co.'s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.
Marfork Coal Co.’s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.