Deaf to ‘Music Saves Mountains,’ EPA Approves New Surface Coal Mine
WASHINGTON, DC, July 1, 2010 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given its conditional approval to a new mountaintop removal coal mining permit, as long as the mine operator makes changes to protect downstream water quality.
The permit for Arch Coal, Inc. in Logan County, West Virginia involves a 760-acre mountaintop removal operation known as the Coal-Mac Pine Creek Surface Mine.
The permit was among those applications subject to a stricter permit review guidance imposed by the EPA in April under the Obama administration’s effort to reduce environmental impacts from Appalachian surface mining.
Environmentalists support the stricter review guidance, but coal industry officials are opposed, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is contemplating a legal challenge to the EPA guidelines.
Environmental and community groups are concerned about the effects of the Pine Creek mining operation that will blast away mountaintops and dump the unwanted rock into three valleys, burying headwater streams.
Bill Price, Sierra Club Environmental Justice organizer in West Virginia, said, “We had high hopes that the EPA’s more stringent guidance for mountaintop removal coal mining would mean protection for our communities, but apparently we were mistaken. It’s time to turn words into action and end this destructive practice.”
“The massive Pine Creek Surface Mine and the neighboring communities and watershed suffer from the cumulative impacts of being surrounded by other mountaintop removal coal mines,” said Price. “Mining companies have already buried close to 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams beneath piles of toxic waste and debris. We can’t allow even one additional mine to destroy our communities.”
Mountaintop removal mining in southern West Virginia (Photo by Vivian Stockman courtesy Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)
But the EPA has decided to grant the permit if Arch Coal would build each valley fill separately over a three year period.
In a June 21 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, West Virginia, John Pomponio, director of the EPA’s Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division, said waiting to start the next fill until the previous one is finished would allow monitoring of each fill “to ensure that predicted water quality outcomes are achieved.”
Arch Coal officials have not said whether or not they would accept the new EPA conditions.
Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition lives in Logan County. “In approving the Pine Creek permit, the EPA has failed our community,” she wrote today on the website ILoveMountains.org. “Any more mountaintop removal mining in Logan County is going to further degrade the watershed, increase pollution-related health impacts and increase the likelihood of more flooding.”
“As deforestation on the Arch Coal mine site would continue to dismantle an important global carbon sink, the mine itself would produce over 14 million tons of coal, which when burned in power plants, would contribute over 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas pollution to the planet’s atmosphere,” she warned.
Community efforts to call a halt to mountaintop removal mining have attracted the support of well known musicians Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Big Kenny and Buddy Miller. They are working with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a new campaign called Music Saves Mountains.
At a sold-out benefit concert in May at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium organized by the NRDC, they raised money for this cause and pledged to generate public awareness of the dangers of this type of coal mining.
Kathy Mattea told ENS in an interview that songs can have a powerful effect on public opinion.
“Music has a way of telling a compelling story in three minutes, that would take many words to convey in print,” Mattea said. “Art wakes us up from a different place, and that is music’s advantage. Compelling songs can wake people up, and get them involved.”
“Events like the one at the Ryman can galvanize a movement, and help the people on the front lines to gather together and re-energize when they may have gotten weary from working so hard,” she said.
“And I suspect there were people in the audience who had been drawn by an affinity for the music, that may have never heard of mountaintop removal. I think drawing people to an event like that helps expose them to the discussion that was going on as the background to the concert.”
“I am from these mountains,” Mattea said. “I grew up there, and as a kid I was all over West Virginia, hiking, camping, caving, fishing, swimming. When I saw Mountaintop Removal for the first time, I was heartbroken. Then I met locals who live near these mines and heard their stories, and it was a sea-change moment for me. I resolved to try to help with whatever resources I could bring.”
Artists at the Music Saves Mountains concert, from left: Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Big Kenny (Photo by Peyton Hoge courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council)
“Sometimes that’s been meeting with the governor, or lobbying state legislators, or U.S. senators and representatives. Sometimes that’s been speaking to college students. Sometimes that’s been singing with other like-minded people. Sometimes it’s been in the form of speeches or articles. Sometimes it’s been in the form of long conversations with grassroots activists, or people in the coal industry,” said Mattea. “I am interested in being of service in any way I can.”
William Kenneth Alphin, known by his stage name Big Kenny, says songs are one way to make more people aware of the need for change. “I just want parents to know that the job they have, that is putting food on the table for their kids is the same job that is contaminating the water their children are drinking and poisoning them,” he told ENS in an interview.
Big Kenny first became aware of mountaintop removal mining about three years ago while flying from Nashville to the family farm in Culpeper, Virginia.
“We saw this abominable destruction from mountaintop removal mining at low level,” he said. “It looked like a moonscape – unbelievable. We saw black lakes and immense destruction.”
“When I returned to Nashville I started researching what was happening and ended up going back to ground zero of this destruction and found out first hand from the people who live there that mountaintop removal is not good for our clean water and the basic human rights of our communities. Coal has oppressed the people of Appalachia for centuries. Few profit off the harm of many.”
Kenny said the words of America’s founding father Thomas Jefferson inspired him to take action against mountaintop removal mining.
“Since Thomas Jefferson wrote ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ just 30 miles from where I was raised a seventh generation Virginia Rock and Roll Farm Boy, it really hit home for me. These are my people and the Appalachia is where my people live. I need to do everything I can to let them know that we have better options for power in our country than any process of exhuming coal that poisons our land, our air, our water, and our children.”
“Protecting Appalachia’s natural heritage is critical in preserving both our musical legacy and the future of our craft,” said Harris. “The Appalachians have inspired countless country, folk, bluegrass, gospel and Americana songs. Now those sources of inspiration are being secretly destroyed. We’re standing together with one voice to send the message that we will not sit idly by while our mountains are being blown apart.”
The coal companies on one side and the musicians, environmental groups and affected communities are locked in a battle that is not going to end anytime soon.
But the Music Saves Mountains participants say their campaign is not an anti-coal industry movement. Rather, it seeks to raise awareness and put an end to just one destructive form of coal mining, mountaintop removal. Less than seven percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from mountaintop removal, its opponents point out.
“Nothing good comes from mountaintop removal,” said NRDC President Frances Beinecke. “It costs jobs, destroys forests and poisons drinking water. People become sick as a result of this form of mining, and communities are forever damaged. Mountaintop removal would never be allowed in America’s other treasured mountain ranges, such as the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada or the Adirondacks. It should not be allowed in the Appalachians, and it must stop.”