Saving Mountains

Movement to end MTR gains momentum


Opponents of mountaintop removal mining have been wary of looking up for even a moment to savor the hard-won victories of the past year. They have stayed busy, fearful of losing ground in the fight to end this form of coal mining, which has destroyed 470 mountains in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.


Sweating as much from nervousness as from the summer heat, coalfield residents, activists and organizers worked through the dog days, distributing buttons and bumper stickers at festivals throughout the Appalachian region while reminding friends to call their congressional representatives.

In late February, more than 12,000 young activists from every state and a dozen countries converged on the Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C. to attend the Power Shift Conference, which focused on influencing federal action on climate change. Mountaintop removal was the topic on everyone’s lips in the sessions and hallways.

On the conference’s final day, many activists took their message to representatives on Capitol Hill. Others took to the streets in an act of civil disobedience against the Capitol Power Plant, a coal-fired facility that provides steam for heating and chilled water for cooling buildings within the Capitol Complex. Coal for the facility has been mined by mountaintop removal. Marching around the massive complex in freezing temperatures, the 2,500 protesters gained national media attention and were successful in shutting down the plant for the day.

“It’s now a national issue,” said Colleen Unroe, an organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “We’ve got traction.”

The movement gained a legislative toehold with the introduction of two bills that would outlaw the dumping of mining wastes into streams. The Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) was introduced in the House of Representatives and currently has 155 bipartisan co-sponsors. On the Senate side, Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) introduced the Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) in late March.

Three months later, Cardin convened a hearing on the issue in the Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. Over 200 people and members of the national media heard riveting testimony from scientists and coalfield residents about the effects of mountaintop removal.

“People I know are already sick, dead and dying because of the impact mountaintop removal has on our water,” said Lorelei Scarbro of Rock Creek, West Virginia. “We need our government to step forward.”

mtr4Some weren’t willing to wait for the slow wheels of government. Just two days before the hearing, dozens of activists and coalfield residents were arrested at a mining site operated by Massey Energy in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia. There, a 2.8 billion gallon sludge impoundment sits just four hundred yards above the Marsh Fork Elementary School. Students would have only three minutes to evacuate if the dam were to break.

Among those arrested during the protest were actress and activist Daryl Hannah, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, 94-year old former congressman Ken Hechler and coalfield resident and activist Judy Bonds, who was also assaulted at the rally by a Massey supporter.

Bonds had been particularly disappointed in the response of the executive branch to the issue. In early June, the Obama administration released a memorandum of understanding with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior. The document outlined a more stringent review process of applications for mining permits and increased federal oversight of how states enforce the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. It also pledged to work to reinstate the Stream Buffer Zone rule that restricted mining to 100 feet from streams.

Bonds and other activists were frustrated that the proposals were not wider reaching. “The Obama administration’s announcement is pure political subterfuge,” Bonds told Grist. “The government has allowed the industry to poison us.”

Teri Blanton, a KFTC fellow, was more cautious in her assessment: “The interagency agreement is a step in the right direction. But this announcement is not an end to mountaintop removal.”

In a subsequent meeting with concerned coalfield residents, Amelia Salzman, of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the policy should be viewed as a stepping stone: “We’re wanting to do this right. We’re taking the time to make sure the science is there so it won’t be able to be undone in the future.”

The activists left the meeting reassured of the administration’s intentions, but skeptical of a lengthy time frame. Gazing across Lafayette Park at the White House, one sighed. “It’s untelling how many more mountains they’ll blow up in the meantime. We’ve got so much work to do.”

Jason Howard, of Eastern Kentucky, is coauthor of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal and editor of We All Live Downstream: Writings About Mountaintop Removal. A former senior editor and staff writer for Equal Justice Magazine, based in Washington, D.C., Howard has been published in Paste, The Louisville Review, Appalachian Heritage and Kentucky Living.

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1 comment

  1. The sludge impoundment at Marsh Fork elementary is ridiculous. We can’t just wait for a disaster to happen there.

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