Coal miners dig up more than coal. Strip-mining operations in particular blast, shovel and haul away millions of tons of what the mining industry calls "overburden." The rest of us know it as trees, rocks and soil.
A kind of strip-mining that's grown more common in recent decades is mountaintop-removal mining: Hundreds of vertical feet of a mountain are smashed away to get at the coal seams within. Under federal law, mining companies can dump the overburden into nearby valleys, filling in streams. Thus the remains of one ruined ecosystem are employed to smother another.
The practice is most common in Appalachia, where it has destroyed more than 500 mountains and 1.2 million acres of forest. In West Virginia alone, it has degraded more than 1,200 miles of streams, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Residents say such operations poison the water, pollute the air with coal dust, and drive many from their homes, often through catastrophic flooding.
Controversy over mountaintop-removal is heating up. In June, the Obama administration proposed two changes to "Nationwide Permit Number 21," which allows mining companies to dump overburden. One change would prohibit using the permit to allow such dumping. The other would suspend its blanket-permission approach in favor of case-by-case permit reviews where companies would have to apply to dump.
Last week, Pittsburgh hosted one of six public hearings on the proposals. The hearings, held by the Army Corps of Engineers, concerned a six-state region including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
The Oct. 13 hearing in Charleston, W.Va., drew about 2,000, most opposed to permitting changes. Bill Price, an environmental-justice staffer for the Sierra Club, says activists supporting the changes were heckled, intimidated and in some cases physically barred from the venue.
Two nights later, Price -- himself a native of West Virginia coal country -- found the David Lawrence Convention Center relatively sedate. Some 300 people turned out, about 100 of them wearing green T-shirts reading "Coal = Job + Energy." The shirts were courtesy of Families for PA Coal, the Monessen-based front group whose members include coal giants Amerikohl and Consol Energy.
About 40 attendees testified, evenly divided pro and con. The rhetoric was often passionate.
"Mountaintop removal is evil, bad, destructive," said Donald Gibbon, of the Sierra Club's Allegheny group. "It is designed wholly for short-term profit."
The permitting changes wouldn't much affect Pennsylvania, which has little valley-fill activity. But that didn't keep away speakers from out of state.
The first to testify, in fact, was Matthew Hite, a staffer for Sen. James Imhofe (R.-Okla.), among the fossil-fuel industry's main Congressional supporters. Hite said the proposals reflected the Obama administration's alliance with "extreme environmental interests." And he raised alarms about "[t]his war against coal, this war against jobs, this war against rural America."
Most who opposed the changes worked in or with the industry. Tom Wynne, a senior vice president with Tulsa, Okla.-based Alliance Coal, warned of a regulatory onslaught by the Obama administration. "The next thing is longwall mining. After longwall mining, it'll be coal waste," Wynne said, to cheers. "They're trying to shut our industry down."
But in fact, environmentalists have criticized Obama for being too easy on coal -- for supporting, for instance, "clean-coal" initiatives many view as a costly boondoggle.
Mountaintop-removal accounts for an estimated 8 percent of U.S. coal consumption, but nearly a third of all mining in West Virginia. Yet objections that the new permitting proposals would cost jobs and hinder economic development likewise don't hold water.
Mining employment has been dropping for decades, even as production has increased. That's largely because of mechanization -- but also because of techniques like mountaintop-removal, which employ far fewer workers than traditional underground mining, and thus increase profits.
Meanwhile, multiple studies suggest that coal-mining actually harms regions economically. Costs include maintaining coal roads, and protecting human health and the environment from mining's effects. One new study out of West Virginia University, for example, estimates that premature mining-related deaths in Appalachia cost five times the $8 billion a year mining generates in economic benefits.
No wonder Appalachia's mining areas remain among the poorest regions in the country. No wonder such grassroots groups as Whitesville, W.Va.-based Coal River Mountain Watch want mountaintop-removal halted entirely.
The Army Corps of Engineers will accept written comments about the proposed permitting changes until Mon., Oct. 26. See www.regulations.gov and follow instructions for docket number COE-2009-0032.