Mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal: Mining practices must change or the ecosystem will be destroyed

The Central Appalachian region, consisting of eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, is one of the most biologically diverse parts of North America. The forests in this region constitute the largest unbroken forest east of the Mississippi River. It is home to approximately 250 bird species, 150 tree species, and countless animal, plant, and aquatic species.

Since the early 1970s, approximately 380,000 acres in West Virginia, 320,000 acres in Kentucky and 90,000 acres in Virginia have been strip-mined for coal. Mountaintop removal operations have become the predominant form of strip mining in this region. Mountaintop removal requires the use of large valley fills for disposal of soil and rock removed from the tops of the mountains to allow access to the coal seams. Many of these valleys fills contain millions of tons of soil and rock and are dumped with little regard to effects upon aquatic, animal or plant life, or the human beings downstream. Some valley fills contain over 300 million tons of mining debris and extend downstream from their headwaters for as far as six miles.

More than 1,900 miles of streams have been buried or severely degraded, in fact completely obliterated, by the valley fills. These mine waste fills are the largest earth structures in North America.

Since 2001, there have been at least seven periods of severe flash flooding in the region that can be directly attributed to increased runoff from mountaintop removal operations and other types of strip mining operations. Flash flooding occurred on July 8, 26, 28 and 29, 2001, in Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Flash flooding occurred again on May 2 and July 19, 2002, and the next year on June 16, 2003.

There have been fatalities. As far back as June 1, 1997, two people died in the Clear Creek area of Raleigh County as a result of flash flooding caused by runoff from a mountaintop removal operation. On July 8, 2001, three people drowned in flash flooding related to strip mining operations, and on May 2, 2002, at least seven people died as a result of rapid runoff and flooding caused by mountaintop removal.

As recently as August 2004, young Jeremy Davidson, a 3-year-old boy who lived near the community of Appalachia, Va., died when a boulder weighing several tons was dislodged by a bulldozer constructing an illegal haul road to a strip mine. Jeremy was asleep in his bed when he was crushed by the boulder. The road construction was being conducted in the early morning hours in a steep-sloped area so as to avoid detection by government regulators.

Sediment loading of streams, particularly in the Kentucky, Cumberland and Big Sandy river basins in Kentucky, and the Guyandotte, Coal and Tug river basins in West Virginia, has accelerated at an alarming rate in the past 25 years. This is due to increased runoff from the unstable, eroding slopes of a valley fill and poorly graded mountaintop removal areas.

The sediment load in areas downstream from mountaintop removal operations can now be measured in the millions of tons. It is estimated that about 1,200 miles of streams downstream from mountaintop removal operations have been severely damaged by sedimentation and heavy metal deposition.

Flooding of the main stem rivers and the Ohio River itself can be attributed to this sediment increase, which reduces stream and flood control reservoir capacities. It is estimated that some flood-control reservoirs in eastern Kentucky, particularly Fishtrap Lake on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, have lost as much as 60 per cent of their storage capacities.

In October 2000, I was asked by the assistant secretary of labour under President Clinton to participate in an investigation of the Martin County coal slurry spill that occurred on Oct. 11, 2000. The conflicts involved in that investigation have been well documented by the press and even on national television.

My only purpose in raising the alarm about this investigation as I did was to make certain that the mining company and the agencies responsible for enforcing mine health and safety and environmental laws be held accountable for their failure to do so. More than 100 miles of streams were polluted by the Martin County spill. All life forms in and along the streams and rivers were obliterated. Approximately 1.6 million fish were killed. More than 27,000 people had their public and private water supplies contaminated. When I objected to weakened investigation reports and less-than-appropriate enforcement actions, I was immediately attacked by administrators in the Labor Department appointed by the Bush administration. They tried to fire me but failed because of the public uproar.

The fact remains, however, that Massey Energy, the company responsible for the spill, and which has one of the poorest environmental records in Appalachia and a less-than-desirable mine health and safety record, has gotten away with what the EPA called the worst environmental disaster in the southeastern United States. Massey has been able to do this because corporate executives have direct access and influence with top officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and other government agencies. According to Common Cause, Massey Energy contributed $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee while it was being investigated for the slurry spill. Massey Energy was ultimately fined $5,600 for the Martin County spill.

There are approximately 650 coal-waste dams in the United States. Most are located in Central Appalachia. About 225 of the coal slurry impoundments are sitting on top of abandoned underground mine workings where the potential exists for additional breakthroughs such as that which took place at Martin County.

Unless the mining practices I have described are controlled far more strenuously or curtailed, by the year 2012 more than 2,500 square miles of Appalachian mountains, forests and streams will have been utterly destroyed. At least 3,500 miles of streams will have been covered up completely. One of the most precious ecosystems in the world will be completely lost, forever, and the people living immediately downstream from these massive mining operations will be forced to leave their homes and communities just to survive.

Spadaro is a West Virginia mining engineer long involved in conflict with the Bush administration. This is excerpted from his speech to the Kentucky River Watch conference on Feb. 5.