Appalachia Rising in DC

Grace Burke protests Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in front of the White House Sept. 27.

People from Appalachia and around the country marched to the White House today to send a message to President Obama about mountaintop removal coal mining: Stop it immediately.

Mountaintop removal — or “mountaintop mining” — as coal companies such as Massey Energy prefer to call it — is a form of strip mining. The companies use explosives to blast off the tops of the mountains and heavy machinery to scoop up the valuable coal seams underneath. Tons of so called “waste rock” (the parts of the mountain of no use to coal companies) are trucked down into valleys, where they are dumped, a process called “valley fill.” Since mountaintop mining began a few decades ago, hundreds of mountains in Appalachia have been blown apart in this way and a couple of thousand of miles of streams and lakes have been buried under waste rubble, according to the EPA.

James Hansen was among about 100 arrested.

Activists from the region charge that mining operations have polluted their drinking water and destabilized the terrain, driving many from homes their families have lived in for generations. A growing body of scientific work has also raised alarming concerns about the long-term implications not just for Appalachians but for everyone who relies on drinking water that originates in those mountains.

According to Dr. Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at University of Maryland, “valley fill” is having an irreversible impact on the region’s ecology. When they dump waste rock, the companies often bury headwaters, where rivers originate, nurturing wildlife and feeding downstream rivers and streams with clean water, she told a Senate subcommittee hearing in June 2009. Palmer went on to say that efforts to restore the land have proved ineffectual. Here’s a quote from her testimony.

“…the streams that are buried when rocks and dirt are dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below are gone forever, and there is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are destroyed. Further, the water quality impacts from the mining and valley fills permeate downstream such that many streams not directly touched by the mining activities are biologically impaired.”

Maria Gunnoe addresses activists gathered earlier today.

Since Obama took office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has beefed up regulatory review of the mountain blasting practices but activists want an all out ban.

The coal companies, however, maintain it’s the most efficient way to get at the coal, which the country relies on to supply about half of all its electricity, and point out that their operations provide jobs in one of the most economically depressed regions of the country.

It’s a contentious debate; one that has divided families in coal country and even the dinner guests at my place this weekend. When the topic came up, a dear friend of mine was not easily swayed by the case against the mining practice. Her argument: transforming the landscape is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, that how cities were built.

It’s hard to argue that point since people have been rearranging the planet’s natural “furniture” for millenia. It’s not just cities, but just about everything we think of as “civilization” we have created by altering the natural environment. In a country, where land rights are paramount, there are also those who argue forcefully that a coal mining company has the right to do whatever it wants with its own land — even if that means blasting away a timeless vista.

But, what about Appalachia’s place in our national identity? I remember learning about these mountains in grade school. They have inspired countless songs, stories, paintings, and poems.  Do private companies have the right to blow a place long considered a national pride? Grace Burke (pictured above) apparently doesn’t think so. She took to the streets of Washington today waving a sign that riffed on one of those mountain-inspired songs.

Organizers said about 2,000 people took part in today’s protest. More than 100 were arrested including NASA climate scientist James Hansen. The “day of action” came at the tail end of the four-day Appalachia Rising conference that attracted coalfield activists and their supporters from around the country.


About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on September 27, 2010, in Carbon footprint, Climate Change, energy efficiency, Environment, environmental justice, food safety, Global Warming, Green Living, health, lifestyle, National Politics, Washington. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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