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Money, Morality at Stake in Mountaintop-Removal Mining

There is coal, and then there is mountaintop-removal coal.

Many environmentalists and political leaders concede that it will take years to wean the nation away from its heavy dependence on coal-fired power plants as a major source of electricity. In the meantime, they work to make existing plants as clean as possible and to oppose the construction of new plants.

But there is a growing realization that one source of coal—mountaintop-removal mining—is especially destructive, and there is a growing conviction that stopping that practice is something that cannot wait.

Some progress has been made through the courts, but that effort was dealt a blow in February when a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., reversed a lower-court ruling that required full consideration of the environmental impact of mountaintop removal and made it more difficult to get permits.

Efforts are under way in state legislatures, as well. Except for Virginia, every coal-producing state has introduced legislation to ban the practice within its borders, according to Appalachian Voices, an environmental group in Boone, N.C. Appalachian Voices has been a leader in the effort to spread the word that not all coal is the same.

And legislators in states that don’t produce coal are also stepping up, including the two largest users of mountaintop-removal coal, Georgia and North Carolina. The bills aim to make electric utilities in those states stop using coal mined by mountaintop removal.

When she introduced a bill to phase out the use of such coal in Georgia, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver was quoted as saying that “We are part of the cycle of coal consumption, and we must take responsibility for Georgia being the nation’s greatest consumer of mountaintop coal. We need to step back and look at how we can do things differently.”

In North Carolina, where observers think similar legislation has a better chance of passing this year, Rep. Pricey Harrison was even more blunt when she introduced her bill in the state House. “This is a horrific and destructive practice,” she said. “We want to remind North Carolina citizens that when they turn on that light switch, they’re blowing up mountains.”

Mountaintop-removal mining is an extreme form of strip mining. First, huge machines are brought in to scrape the trees and topsoil off a mountain’s summit. Then explosives are used to blast away masses of rock—often as much as 800 to 1,000 feet of elevation that once was a peak—to expose thin seams of coal.

The “waste” —what used to be the mountaintop—is dumped into narrow valleys, sometimes burying streams. Ponds hold slurry left over after coal is washed; sometimes, the dams break, and poison-laden water can flood communities in the valleys below. On its way out of office in December, the Bush administration repealed a rule requiring buffer zones to protect streams from having waste dumped into them.

Residents of coal-mining states such as West Virginia are among those who are protesting mountaintop-removal mining. The constant blasting, the dust it generates and the damage to watersheds threaten their peace and their health.

The destruction of the mountains also threatens the tourism industry that is one of the central Appalachian area’s hopes for a sustainable industry. When the mining is done, the coal companies “reclaim” the area, but they cannot rebuild the mountain. What remains is a flat, barren plain without enough topsoil to sustain a new forest.

Some of the mines spread over more than one mountain, covering thousands of acres. People driving through West Virginia may never be aware of what’s going on. It is all but impossible to comprehend the enormity of the mines except from above. That’s why one of the environmental groups that has been crucial in raising awareness is SouthWings, with headquarters in Asheville, N.C. It recruits volunteer pilots to fly small planes to take journalists, politicians and others for a birds-eye view of the destruction.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, since the practice was started in 1970, more than 470 mountaintops have been blasted away, an estimated 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest have been destroyed, and about 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried.

Mountaintop-removal mining also costs hundreds of miners’ jobs. It’s all about money: Instead of tunneling into veins of coal inside mountains and sending miners in, the companies save money by using machines and explosives.

Money is also the primary argument that power companies offer to oppose laws banning mountaintop coal. Politicians worry that passing the bills will raise consumers’ electricity bills, and utilities tell them that rates would go up.

Appalachian Voices argues, however, that the difference between the costs of deep-mined coal and that of mountaintop coal should not have a significant impact on consumers. It also argues that mountaintop-removal coal is going to be made illegal sooner or later, and that consumers in states such as Georgia and North Carolina that depend heavily on it will fare better if their utilities act now to move to other sources of coal. And eventually, of course, they will fare better if their electricity comes from some other source of energy.

Harvard Ayers of Appalachian Voices challenges the utilities to produce data to support their assertion that banning mountaintop coal will cost consumers. “If the utilities are claiming that this bill will raise rates we are asking them to prove it,” he said.

Nor is money the only consideration. When introducing his version of North Carolina’s bill into the state’s Senate, Sen. Steve Goss was quoted as saying, “I am firmly convinced that mountaintop removal is a moral issue that begs our hearts and minds to do the right thing.”

Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.