Democrats & Liberals Archives

Mountaintop Pillage

The naked land reveals the naked truth. The greed of millionaires trumps the health of the poor, the purity of the water, and even the beauty of the hills. In an under-reported story, the Bush administration has made yet another rule change assaulting the environment and enriching the polluters. The practice of mountaintop removal will no longer be hampered by those pesky environmental rules designed to protect our waters.

Photo courtesy Vivian Stockman /
Flyover courtesy

Couched in language which might initially incline a reader to think it is protecting the environment, the new proposed rules actually redefine terms, and reinterpret former acts of Congress, in such a way that mining operations which engage in the surface coal mining technology known as mountaintop removal are exempt from the 1983 requirement that prohibits mining activity within 100 feet of streams. In fact this practice routinely buries streams and valleys by tons of rubble, known as "excess spoil", which is stripped off the top of coal seams running through the tops of hills and mountains in West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Virginia.

The current rule change is subject to a 60-day comment period which will expire on October 23, though those looking for a response to their comment had best post it to before September 24. Folks at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have created this page of suggestions for citizen action, while this is the page provided by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

So if the rule change is new, then how is it that about 1200 miles of streams have been tainted by this process (700 miles simply buried) since 1992? According to Vernon Haltom of Coal River Mountain Watch,

What happens is the permitting agencies grant variances, and they grant variances just pretty much willy-nilly. All the coal operator has to do is request a variance, and they’re granted pretty easily. Unfortunately, you know, this rule change would remove even that requirement.

The latest rule change is simply the latest in a series of changes which further undercuts environmental safeguards of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). The lengthy new document, which is actually surprisingly readable, arguably does remove logical ambiguities from the original act, but ever in the direction of allowing practices which are suggested as possible where another part of the Act would logically prohibit them.

Viewing photographs of this obvious desecration, one might wonder why it isn't front page news, frequently reported by the mainstream press. Alternatively one wonders, "Well what's the other side of the story?" In fact Google searches of CNN, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, and Fox News consistently turn up surprising few hits on "mountaintop removal", in spite of the fact that is the acknowledged name of the practice. Neither can one find any bevy of editorials supporting this indefensible practice, though occasional editorial support of coal liquification technologies implicitly approve the practice, as mountaintop removal (MTR) provides much of today's raw materials for that process.

Furthermore I scoured the online versions of the local press from such places as Beckley, WV and Pikeville, KY. Very little in the way of articles on the process appear, though there were numerous letters to the editor almost unanimously in staunch opposition to the process. The Charleston Gazette did a better job of covering it, with an earlier series, and a recent editorial by Allen Johnson declaring the destruction of the mountains to be a moral issue. Johnson, of Christians for the Mountains, was featured on a recent episode of Bill Moyers' Journal which investigated the issue.

Well then, is it the jobs MTR is providing that is producing such silence on this destructive practice? In fact, it has the opposite effect on employment as the process uses bigger machines and fewer people than traditional mining practices. Vernon Haltom again:

You know, we hear about coal being cheap. Well, coal is not cheap when you consider all the externalized costs that are borne by these communities. It’s really -- it is unbearable. And so what you have, you have depopulation, you have decreased jobs. Mountaintop removal requires fewer miners, and therefore fewer jobs.
Really it boils down to wealth and influence. Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, has no lack of ties and connections to government and the regulators, while Ed Wiley, citizen of West Virginia, walked all the way from Charleston, West Virginia to Washington, DC, and still could get no hearing. Carmelita Brown can look up the hill at Blankenship's home, and yet her water frequently ran dark brown with contaminants from ground water ruined by Massey's irresponsible mining practices. Only after thirteen years of documenting the contamination and battling the authorities, did Brown and 300 other families get clean municipal water piped into their homes. Of course that doesn't fix the ground water contamination which continues apace, and will only accelerate when this rule takes effect. It doesn't fix the air pollution caused by the blasting which exposes the seams of coal, to the tune of 474,000 metric tons of explosives used in West Virginia alone in 2005.

The Administration's own report (page 3) acknowledges that there were 1079 excess spoil fills approved in Kentucky, 375 in West Virginia, and 125 in Virginia between October 2001 and June of 2005. These are those exemptions already granted for filling in creeks, which will no longer be necessary when the new rule goes into effect. The new language may remove ambiguity about what is and is not allowed (pretty much the polluters can do as they please), but the constraints, now often amount to vague suggestions that excess spoil and adverse environmental impacts be minimized, rather than enforcing specific standards. There remains the constraint that the spoil not be dumped into valleys lower in altitude than the lowest part of the seam to be mined, but that's easily skirted by making sure some mining occurs in a seam lower than the intended dumping area.

The champions of the free market love to claim that market forces can work to protect our environment, but when the distribution of wealth is so extremely skewed it just doesn't work that way. Billionaires buy the regulations they want, and the impoverished are left with no leverage. This isn't supply and demand; it's corruption pure and simple. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are on the take, but there is little question that the Bush Administration is front and center when it comes to cementing the advantage for the wealthy elite.

Posted by Walker Willingham at September 14, 2007 5:44 PM
Comment #232872

You have a right to be pissed off. This is a disgrace. Corpocrisy, greed, and government FOR-SALE allows this.

However, you must realize that DEMs and REPUBs alike allowed it.

Posted by: d.a.n at September 14, 2007 8:23 PM
Comment #232879


You are right. But the bottom line is our use of “cheap” coal. A carbon tax would push those prices up to the real cost.

You also identify the wrong pressure point. You correctly say that corrupt government regulations led to this problem, but you have confidence that more government regulation will solve this problem. The story of regulation is exactly this. Regulators are captured by those they regulate. They are all part of a system. Reasonable regulations are necessary, but the point of greatest leverage is cost. Tax that carbon & increase the depletion allowances if you want action. Call for more laws if you want to be outraged.

BTW - You can restore some of the mine areas. I have seen forests thriving on till and tailings that were treated with things like sewerage. The tailings, properly processed, can provide a better medium for growth than the poor utsols that are natural nearby. It is actaully amazing. I would not have believed it if I had not seen it myself.

I favor forestry, not mining. The mining, with their mineral rights claims, are often the enemy of my friends and I would fight mining on or adjacent to my lands, no matter what the incentive. But while I agree that mountain top removal should be illegal, in all fairness, the mountain removal is not the end of the story.

Posted by: Jack at September 14, 2007 10:27 PM
Comment #232899


Absolutely fantastic article. If I searched back a couple of weeks I’m sure I dropped a slight mention of this in some thread here. It’s corporate America and Laissez-faire economy run wild! Where money can be made everything else be damned! Just strip the land bare!

Of course it all fits quite well into the whole Dominionist Theocracy vision also. Everything is here for our consumption and use! The Republicans try to be very quiet about this while the Libertarian party at least has enough cajones to say they think ALL public lands should be restored to private ownership.

I actually plan on adding a comment in Rhinehold’s article in the center column about the “farm bill” which has been one of the most contentious pieces of legislation this year due to what some see as “rewarding” the wealthy, while in fact it’s more often a matter of keeping farm land in production rather than having it be exploited for $$$$$$$$$. It exposes an obvious divide between “property rights” and the protection of our natural resources.

The so-called “conservatives” would have us believe that the capitalists will NOT strip our natural resources bare because doing so would endanger them. I say BULL SHIT! They don’t care. At the end of the day most of the capitalists could care less if the masses are left with nothing but barren land. They’ll gladly take their billion$$$$$ or trillion$$$$$$$$$ and retreat to Dubai or their private islands!!!!!!!!!!

If your article is not enough to convince any American that the EPA exists for a valid reason which should rise above politics I don’t know what possibly could. Very seriously, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read here! If we continue the way we are no one will have to nuke us, we’ll just spoil the land, the water, and the air ourselves.

Posted by: KansasDem at September 15, 2007 12:40 AM
Comment #232903

Walker, outstanding article. And the tremendous amount of time and research on this topic really shows in your article. Thank you very much for bringing this atrocity to light. I will get on their site for suggestions to action in the morning.

Another great WatchBlog article one would not find on any other political debate blog site.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 15, 2007 1:19 AM
Comment #232904

“Another great WatchBlog article one would not find on any other political debate blog site.”

David R. Remer,

As was your article on the economy! I was actually unable to come up with a comment to that article. I was awe struck. I couldn’t add a darn thing and I couldn’t disagree with a darn thing either.

Odd isn’t it? The WARS take so much oxygen out of the air WE (collectively) have no time left for the economy or the environment. It definitely makes me doubt our nations future. Especially when I throw in Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, OJ Simpson, etc.

Posted by: KansasDem at September 15, 2007 1:31 AM
Comment #232908


Did AP leave a comment which disappeared? Assuming instead that you are replying to my article, you seem to make an assumption which is not in evidence: i.e. my “confidence that more government regulation will solve this problem.” In fact what was needed but missing in this case over the past 24 years (yes d.a.n. there’s blame on the Dems’ side as well) was enforcement of an existing regulation.

It may surprise you to know that I actually agree that there are too many regulations, but it shouldn’t as I wrote this piece on Right Regulation over three years ago. I also am on board with your idea of a carbon tax, as long as it is part of an integrated system of balances and controls, which include reasonable plain language regulation - preferably adopted by authorities developed to be more independent of corporate, partisan, or ideological influence. Creation of such authority is no easy matter, and there is always the need for vigilance that any authority regardless of its genesis be overseen to avoid corruption. But to rely solely on market based controls and the good will of the industries whose purpose is profit is the utmost of naivete.

Peter Barnes offers some creative ideas for reinventing capitalism and reclaiming and broadening the concept of the commons in his book last year, Capitalism 3.0.

Posted by: Walker Willingham at September 15, 2007 2:07 AM
Comment #232921

It’s all so sad and unbelievable. It’s as if Sauron has taken rule from Mount Doom. Sometimes it seems that gloomy and that dark. I could be laughed at for my melodrama but only because these mountains are never seen in the evening news, only because we never see anything that is still happening in New Orleans and because we never see the real world sheltered from it by our modern media. Very few of us live and see the real world. These people are greedy shortsighted and disgusting.

Posted by: muirgeo at September 15, 2007 2:53 AM
Comment #232926

Your gloomy response compels me to reply with some positive chords. I frequently write about corporate excess and misdeeds. One might infer that I must have some special loathing for CEOs and the boardrooms of America, but that is not the case. CEOs are flesh and blood human beings, as are we all, and are subject to the same mix of joy, sadness, fear, compassion, or greed as anyone. Given the natural power imbalances that will come into any system, I actually find it quite amazing what our human family has come to accomplish together. The modern world offers us riches unimaginable mere centuries ago, and capitalism unquestionably has played a role in that development. Many of these benefits can be enjoyed by those labeled poor in Western countries such as the US.

Power imbalances are bound to creep into any system, and no amount of utopian engineering will ever be able to will them away. The relative plenty that has been enjoyed in our nation over the last century is testament to something good in our system - though also admittedly owes something as well to the exploitation of many in other lands. Still there is a lesson there about the value of a large middle class and the ability to bring the advantages of modernity to the masses.

In the early part of the twentieth century we were on the precipice of allowing a disparity of wealth upset much of our potential, but the labor movement (among other forces) did more than most people realize to institutionalize some safeguards to keep that balance from becoming too skewed in favor of the powerful. That balancing has benefited not just the middle and lower classes, but the wealthy too, for the way of unbalance leads to chaos and cloistering. It is not happy for anyone.

Today as ever there are concerns about wealth disparity getting too far out of balance, and there are places in America, such as Appalachia and New Orleans, where the imbalance is quite palpable.

I find hope in our history. I find hope in the recognition by many in the ruling class that the path toward greater disparity is not in anyone’s interest. There will always be instances of excess. There is nothing inherently natural about egalitarianism, but equal opportunity, at least, is an inspiring ideal. If the rules of the game require corporations to have the concerns of the stockholder trump the concerns of all other stakeholders, as current law actually requires, it is little wonder that there are instances of excess.

It is the actions of concerned citizens which can help to stanch excess. Sure the whole system may go to hell in the coming decades, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s up to us to work for the balance. Us is everybody.

In this article I happened to call out Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy. I’m plenty angry about what’s happening to the mountains of Appalachia in the name of cheap energy. I really feel for the victims of this rape of the land whose water is contaminated and ancestral homes are scraped clear for the mining of an unrenewable resource. But I don’t know Don Blankenship, and I don’t want to make this personal. I agree with Solzhenitsyn who wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That’s yours, mine, Don Blankenship’s, and every victim as well.

This story touched me because it is far too ignored, and the victims have so little voice. But they have had enough voice for me to hear them over 2000 miles away, and I have enough voice to amplify theirs just a little bit more.

Don’t lose hope.

Don’t ever lose hope.

Posted by: Walker Willingham at September 15, 2007 3:56 AM
Comment #232927


The bad thing about a carbon tax is that the poor and the middle class will suffer the most from it. Those at the top will simply manipulate “the markets” so they feel little or no shock whatsoever.

Our middle class truly is disappearing ……… we’re headed toward a caste society. I’m surprised so few see that.

What we need is someone that’s not afraid to say the “R” word”: RATIONING! That’s a career killer.

Posted by: KansasDem at September 15, 2007 4:01 AM
Comment #232938

Kansas Dem said: “Especially when I throw in Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, OJ Simpson, etc.”

Yes, very especially!

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 15, 2007 9:29 AM
Comment #232955

All the regulations are worthless when the regulators are captains of industry. When the miners in Pennsylvania were rescued a couple of years back, there was a call for stronger safety regulations. Bush responded by naming a person to the Mining Safety Board who had a long history of fighting stronger safety regulations.

How many amoung you think that the regulations that have led to the advances we have made in cleaning up our environment would have occured if the Republicans had controlled Congress when they were enacted? One can argue correctly that Republican presidents signed many of these regulations into law despite being against them. What kind of quid pro quo did Ronald Reagan get for signing enviromental laws? Was it voodoo economics and a fifty percent reduction in corporate taxes?

It is obvious what George Bush’s political appointees think about rules and regulations, but how well did Reagan’s appointees (James Watt) or Clinton’s appointees follow the regulations?

Posted by: jlw at September 15, 2007 10:43 AM
Comment #232984

More astounding logic. Because some regulators are corrupt we should not have regulation? Seems to me we should purge the corrupt regulators. I have heard it said that it takes about 3 years for industry to corrupt regulators.Thats the best reason for presidential term limits. You Cons declare that government does not work and when elected set about to prove it.
How about a simple MTR regulation,NO.

Posted by: BillS at September 15, 2007 1:38 PM
Comment #232989


From what he has written, Jack would deny that he is against all regulation, but he is clearly in denial that his party are the chief enablers of allowing the regulated industries to create COMPLEX regulations tweaked to favor the biggest corporations, while making life difficult for the little guys. It’s actually quite a sneaky approach. Rather than rewriting the rules to be simple, they adjust old laws, often written when Dems had more control, allowing remnant regulations to remain which put small business at a disadvantage, but recruiting those very businesses to cry foul about the onerous and unreasonable Democratic-written regulations.

Lots of regulations need to be scrapped and rewritten to be simpler, fewer, applied without exceptions for the powerful, sometimes laxer, but more often stricter.

In the case of MTR, you’ve got it exactly right:


Posted by: Walker Willingham at September 15, 2007 2:04 PM
Comment #232992


Sorry to you and AP. I just wrote in the wrong thing.

I thought that your desire for stronger regulation was implied. I also do not disagree with you re some regulation. We need some regulations. But all regulations are enacted and enforced by fallible and sometimes dishonest human beings. When you give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. When you combine that with bureaucrats trying to protect phoney baloney jobs and business interests trying to protect and expand their operations, you have a recipe for screwing up.

The reason I like the carbon tax is that it is elegant. I believe in market mechanisms because they provide incentives and information on which many unconnected can make decisions that lead to a better aggregate outcome. It does not require constant fine tuning and it is largely immune to bribery and political manipulation. That is why government colludes with business to try to control it. Both are status quo powers.


The carbon tax hits those who use the carbon and therefore those who are causing the pollution. We do not want to change that and protecting the poor is merely a distraction. If you want to help the poor, you can do that with income tax credits etc. But you cannot forgive their pollution just because they are poor. Like everybody else, they must make the choices and we cannot subsidize their bad ones.

The carbon tax can be neutral to the poor but not neutral to results. You can “give back” to the poor whatever you think it costs them in carbon taxes. But you cannot subsidize their error.


The problem is cheap coal. Remove the incentive and you will remove most of the problem.

Posted by: Jack at September 15, 2007 2:32 PM
Comment #233049

Any word on when Bush will announce that he’s selling Yosemite to Halliburton? Or resurrecting Disney’s plan to put a ski resort at Mineral King? (Sequoia N.P.)

The environment is a moral issue. Contrary to Ann Coulter’s ridiculous version of Christianity, God did not tell humans they could pillage and rape the planet to their hearts content. This is appalling. Is there nothing that politicians will not sell and businessmen will not buy just for the sake of profit? Do they honestly see nothing more valuable than a few extra zeros on the end of their already bloated bank accounts?

Kansas and David
Please don’t feel to bad about Lindsay and Paris. There are plenty of responsible young people out there who want to help their country. They do not define my generation, any more than all the rich politicians and businessmen from your generation that I despise define yours.

Posted by: Silima at September 16, 2007 1:44 AM
Comment #233392

Fight Mountaintop Removal Mining:

Posted by: Tom Hams at September 19, 2007 12:47 AM
Comment #233414

Walker Willingham- Thanks for Caring, excellent

Posted by: -DAVID- at September 19, 2007 7:36 AM
Comment #233435

Silima, your generation is not the most politically ignorant in history. That’s for sure. But, the polls show it to be one of the most politically apathetic. My generation voted in record numbers, the baby boomers. It’s been going downhill ever since. Appears access to more and more information does not have the motivation factor my generation had hoped in terms of voter participation.

Probably has much to do with so much affluence my generation created for yours. Affluence is accompanied by apathy and complacency in every major civilization that ever fell into ruin.

Your generation would do well to learn from ours, and ours would do well to encourage and promote yours and your future. I regret, both are falling down on their responsibilities in this regard.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 19, 2007 11:11 AM
Comment #233437

Tom and Walker, thank you. I have sent my correspondence to the officials and my representatives. Much appreciated on the heads up.

Posted by: David R. Remer at September 19, 2007 11:23 AM
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