Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

EIA: Mountaintop removal coal production down

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by brian
A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from

A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) published a blog post this week showing that coal produced by mountaintop removal mining in Central Appalachia decreased by 62 percent between 2008 and 2014.

According to the agency, a combination of factors including abundant and cheap natural gas, growing use of renewables, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations has contributed to the sharp decline.

It’s important to note that what the EIA defines as mountaintop removal is not the same as what folks in Appalachia call mountaintop removal.

Because the EIA doesn’t count a lot of large strip mines in the region, the total numbers here likely underestimate the number of mines threatening human health and the environment. For the same reason, production declines for mountaintop removal specifically may not be as steeps as the EIA states.

What is clear, though, is that both production and the total number of mountaintop removal mines is way down in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Our work is paying off, but we still have a long way to go. Mountaintop removal is still putting communities at risk. In fact, in many places, active mining operations are getting closer to communities.

Demand for Central Appalachian coal will continue to decline, making further progress inevitable. But we won’t end mountaintop removal by relying on the market alone. The Obama administration must take further action to protect Appalachia by issuing a strong Stream Protection Rule, which is due out this month.

The following is a statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

It is incredibly important not to look at these numbers and conclude the problem is just going away. Production numbers don’t convey the extent of human health impacts. Mine location, blasting extent, and impacts to the environment are much more important indicators of damage done to communities.

Fewer mines is good news. But don’t expect us to celebrate. The EIA reports that last year there were over 30 mountaintop removal mines operating in Central Appalachia, producing more than 20 million tons of coal. Those numbers should be zero.

Allowing mountaintop removal mining to continue as residents demand new investments and support for economic alternatives will only burden communities searching for a better path forward.

Let the President know we need a strong rule that helps move Appalachia forward.

Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Friday, June 26th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

Virginia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But the U.S. House budget cuts Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mined Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen we need to make sure that Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hear the clear message from you to make sure Appalachia gets this much needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

Reworking the Region

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
A Coalfield Development Corporation Quality Jobs Initiative participant works at a construction site.  Photo by Patty Brewer

A Coalfield Development Corporation Quality Jobs Initiative participant works at a construction site. Photo by Patty Brewer

By Dan Radmacher

As Appalachia suffers through the effects of yet another downturn in the coal industry, a number of organizations are stepping up efforts to create jobs, retain young adults in the region and better educate the workforce.

“It’s a challenging environment, for sure,” says Brandon Dennison, executive director of Coalfield Development Corp., an organization devoted to revitalizing the local economy in Wayne, Mingo and Lincoln counties in West Virginia. “Almost all of our crew members have been economically affected by the coal downturn. There aren’t a lot of job opportunities.”

The organization’s Quality Jobs Initiative gives recently unemployed young adults a 30-month contract and puts them on a weekly 33/6/3 schedule: 33 hours of construction work, six hours of community college and three hours of life skills training.

Crew members who graduate from the program gain an associate’s degree, multiple professional certifications, hands-on experience, and training in life skills areas such as money, time management and emotional health. Similar programs for agricultural and service workers are also being planned.

“We want to give them the tools to reverse the cycle of poverty,” Dennison says.

For Jeff James, chairman of the new nonprofit Create West Virginia, giving tools to individuals, while important, is insufficient. Create West Virginia wants to change the culture in Appalachia so that it’s more conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship. The organization is hosting a three-day conference in Fayetteville in September, “Building Bridges to a New Economy,” the latest in a series of conferences aimed at finding ways to shift the region’s focus.

West Virginia has several creative magnets — areas that attract people who want to come to an area not just for jobs but for a sense of place. These range from geographic locations like the New River Gorge to technology centers like the Fairmont/Clarksburg/Morgantown corridor.

“West Virginia needs to grow creative muscle and the ability to diversify,” James says. “Small towns and the people that come from them need to know they can build an innovation economy. ”

Financing Rejuvenation

One thing that could certainly help in a number of revitalization efforts is an infusion of cash in the region. This could come in the form of President Obama’s POWER+ Plan, which will devote significant new money to the coalfields if the plan can pass Congress.

The plan would add $25 million in funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, $20 million a year for re-employment services and job training for laid-off miners, money for grants to help economically distressed communities foster “an environment conducive to job creation and economic growth,” and a $200 million annual boost in spending on reclaiming abandoned mine lands.

“The POWER+ Plan would utilize resources on a scale that a single federal initiative hasn’t done in our region in a very long time,” says Eric Dixon, an Appalachian Transition Fellow at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

“The way the [Abandoned Mine Lands] plan is structured, the money has to be used for projects that pose an economic development potential,” Dixon says. “These sites have potential for beekeeping, agriculture, recreational tourism and other economic engines, but those solutions won’t pop up unless we have a very big public dialogue about this money and this program to spark people’s imaginations across the region.”

The boost to the Abandoned Mine Lands program could be especially important for the region, both in the short and long terms, Dixon says. Getting laid-off miners and others with the necessary skills to reclaim old mine sites back to work will give communities an immediate economic boost. But the long-term impact could be far greater.
Adam Wells, economic diversification campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices, publisher of this newspaper, is fully behind the plan.

“For so long, Appalachia has been giving away our natural resources, and our cultural and social resources,” says Wells. “It’s really good to see a federal program that gives back to us in a meaningful way, and one that focuses so specifically on moving us forward to a diverse new economy in Appalachia.”

An influx of federal money could be helpful, but many looking to better Appalachia’s economy are wary of waiting for any kind of external savior.

Building on the Past

“Our philosophy is that we already have everything we need to thrive in Appalachia,” says Coalfield Development Corp.’s Dennison. “We have a proud history to build from; enterprising, strong, smart, creative people; vibrant communities that work with the land and close to the land instead of exploiting it.”

The desire to build upon history and use resources that already exist guides much of the work Coalfield Development Corp. does, such as the recent renovation of the Urlings General Store in Wayne, W.Va.

“We like to work in historic, abandoned buildings,” Dennison says. “We like to maintain the character, the sense of stories and history embedded in those buildings.”

And bringing new life to a vacant building is healing. “Empty buildings can be a real scar on a community,” says Dennison. “It’s great to return vitality and purpose to a place like that.”

The former general store is now home to five affordable housing units, built with energy efficiency in mind, including solar water heaters, both because such efficiency is good for the environment and because it helps low-income tenants by lowering their bills.

The building will also house commercial space, including a coffee shop operated by the tenants, who — like the crew members who renovated the building — will be on Coalfield Development Corp.’s 33/6/3 schedule.

“We’re trying to create truly empowering opportunities and replicate our model in a new industry,” says Dennison.

A worker-owner arranges fabric at the Opportunity Threads plant in Morganton, N.C.  Photo by Willa Johnson

A worker-owner arranges fabric at the Opportunity Threads plant in Morganton, N.C.
Photo by Willa Johnson

Crafting Worker Ownership

Revitalization efforts are underway outside of Appalachia’s coalfields as well. In rural North Carolina, hit hard over the last few decades by the collapse of the tobacco market and the textile and furniture industries, the focus is on re-envisioning what labor looks like through worker ownership.

Opportunity Threads is a worker-owned garment plant in Morganton, N.C., with a focus on sustainable production and building local resources.

“Traditionally, labor in the South involved wealth being taken out of the community,” says Molly Hernstreet, founder and general manager of Opportunity Threads. “Our challenge was to build models in these heritage industries where the wealth can be more deeply rooted in our community.”

Like Dennison, Hernstreet believes understanding Appalachian character is the key to future prosperity. “We’re makers,” she says. “We can hope for change, or know that’s what we’re good at. Let’s find the models that are financially the most viable and create the most wealth.”

For Hernstreet, the worker-owner model makes the most sense, especially in a low-margin industry like textiles.
“We can drive those narrow margins into good hourly wages and benefits,” she says. “Worker ownership lends itself to meeting all the challenges in this industry: Quick turnaround, high quality and a competitive price structure. When a worker is also an owner, they understand the value of their own productivity.”

Opportunity Threads is part of the Carolina Textile District, a cooperative that helps small textile shops work together and aggregate demand.

Sara Chester, part of Carolina Textile District’s management team, says that the idea is to recruit work — rather than companies — to the region. But one challenge has been convincing a new generation of workers to trust in textiles.

“We lost so many jobs in such a short amount of time,” Chester says. “Kids grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them not to work in these jobs. It’s been a real battle to change that image.”

As with much of this work, patience is key. “We’re not going to turn it around in just a year or two,” Chester says. “This is a message we’ll have to reinforce for years to come.”

Online Shopping: A Farmer’s Market

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Laura Marion

The Monroe Farm Market, an online farmers market in southeastern West Virginia, works with 51 local farms to post their products in an online store, allowing customers to buy all of these products from one location. Through their website, Monroe Farm Market sells produce, live plants, locally made crafts, meats, honey, dairy and baked goods.

What started in 2006 as a spreadsheet emailed between a group of locals, farms and a market manager has evolved into an online shopping center that allows customers to more easily pick which products they would like, the quantity of those products, and even to choose which farm they would prefer the products come from. After purchasing, customers can pick up their goods at one of four pickup locations in Monroe County, W. Va.

The Monroe Farm Market uses the technology of the Local Food Marketplace, a national network of farmers and markets with several organizers in the Appalachian region, including West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

For more information, visit:

Turn This Town Around

Saturday, June 13th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Community members participating in the Grafton, W. Va., Turn This Town Around initiative completed projects such as repainting a downtown caboose. Photo courtesy of Amanda Yager, WV Community Development Hub

Community members participating in the Grafton, W. Va., Turn This Town Around initiative completed projects such as repainting a downtown caboose. Photo courtesy of Amanda Yager, WV Community Development Hub

Energizing small communities in West Virginia

By Kimber Ray

Amid the low brick buildings forming the modest downtown of Whitesville, W.Va., a storefront window displays a jubilant sign of welcome: “Excited to learn / Ready to turn!”

Such optimism is certainly welcomed in this small Boone County community that, like many others in the area, has steadily receded from the better days of the Mountain State’s southern coalfields. Just this past year, the disquieting closure of the town’s only grocery store left residents with a 30 minute drive to the nearest supermarket.

“In the last 20 years we’ve seen a slow decline. Not just in population but in businesses,” local resident Hollie Smarr told West Virginia Focus Magazine. “In the last few years it seems like everybody has just lost hope.”

Many locals have experienced growing enthusiasm, however, since the announcement last December that their town was chosen to participate in the second year of the West Virginia community revitalization project Turn This Town Around. Along with Ripley in Jackson County, Whitesville is among this year’s two West Virginia communities selected by a vote of more than 23,000 people across the country.

A collaborative effort initiated by West Virginia Focus Magazine, Turn This Town Around seeks to inspire public leadership and engagement in struggling communities. Together with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the magazine shares the story of what happens when residents are offered assistance from professional community development experts — provided by the nonprofit West Virginia Community Development Hub — and asked to come up with and pursue practical neighborhood revitalization projects to change the course of their town.

If last year’s winners are any indication, the answer is good. Even the smaller of the community-initiated projects, such as freshly painted buildings, cleaner streets and decorative planters, have already infused the West Virginia towns of Matewan and Grafton with a transformative air. Progress on larger-scale projects is gradually unfolding too.

In Matewan, the long-anticipated opening of the new West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was made possible this May with the replacement of damaged flooring. Additional proposals from local residents include adding bike racks and improving road safety to qualify as a nationally certified Bicycle Friendly Community, restoring a historic jail, developing the Geocache Matewan project, and branding and marketing the town as a destination for historic and outdoor recreation tourism.

Both Matewan and Grafton have ample funds to work with, thanks to a $150,000 Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation grant, which called for small teams in the two communities to submit mini-project proposals. The two new communities, Whitesville and Ripley, will not know whether they will receive the same grant until this July.

Among the projects initiated by Grafton, W.Va., residents is an expanded farmers market. Photo courtesy of Amanda Yager, WV Community Development Hub

Among the projects initiated by Grafton, W.Va., residents is an expanded farmers market. Photo courtesy of Amanda Yager, WV Community Development Hub

Either way, Kent Spellman, executive director of the Hub, advises that the most important step for communities in Turn This Town Around is developing plans and a sense of motivation. “Funders will only invest in communities that will invest in themselves,” explains Spellman.

Whitesville residents have taken this credence to heart and, before the first community meeting was held in March, they had independently raised $14,000 — including a $10,000 state grant for building repair — to apply to town projects.

That commitment to community engagement has endured in Matewan and Grafton where, even after their conclusion of Turn This Town Around, residents continue to host weekly meetings. “We understand these projects take time and there will be challenges and bumps in the road, says Spellman. “But the really critical thing is that progress is continuing.”

“We did a debrief at the end of the first year and what we heard [from residents] was ‘We had never worked together before,’” says Spellman. “‘but Turn This Town Around brought us together, and taught us how we can work together.’”
For more information, visit:

Photo courtesy WV MIne Wars Museum

Photo courtesy WV MIne Wars Museum

A Tribute to WV Mine Wars

By Laura Marion

The West Virginia Mine Wars museum, which opened in Matewan, W. Va. on May 16, commemorates the conflicts between miners and mine ownership that took place in the early 20th century.

The museum was funded through grants, crowdfunding and private donations. The building was originally the Chambers Hardware Store, and served as a meeting place for miners involved in the strikes.

Volunteers helped gather the items on display at the museum — such as bullet shells, rifles, and media propaganda — from resident donations and local antique stores. The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike exhibit shows an example of the tents where miners and their families lived during the strikes.

In the coalfields of the early 1900s, miners were confronted with low wages, high work-related death rates, and other challenges. In 1912, miners in West Virginia walked off of their jobs to demand that their employers recognize their union. Over the next decade there were many confrontations between the miners and the company mine guards, which culminated with the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest civil uprising since the Civil War.

The West Virginia Mine Wars museum is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information is available at

Another challenge facing coal: Cleaning up

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by brian
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcies, legal fees, fines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.

Learn how mountaintop removal puts Appalachian communities at risk. Read the latest issue of
The Appalachian Voice.

A story found “In the Hills and Hollows”

Friday, June 5th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Filmmaker Keely Kernan, who wrote this piece, is currently producing In the Hills and Hollows, a documentary that follows the lives of several West Virginia residents living in the middle of the natural gas boom. The film also juxtaposes the boom and bust coal industry that has dominated the landscape of West Virginia for over a century with the current natural gas boom. Visit to learn more about the project. Read the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice, which features stories about our fractured relationship with natural gas.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

In the Hills and Hollows is an upcoming documentary film by Keely Kernan about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia communities.

It was on the banks of the Ohio River that I was reunited with former residents of Tyler County, W.Va., Annie and John Seay. They were staying in an RV park that had become home to more than a dozen transient oil and gas workers.

I first met Annie and John at their home in Lima, W.Va., that was situated up a hollow surrounded by the vast rolling mountains that encapsulate West Virginia. They moved here from California with the hope of living off the land and retiring in the quiet countryside. After spending years investing in their property and building their dream home they found themselves doing the unimaginable — packing up and leaving West Virginia. Their property had been surrounded by dozens of gas wells and the smell of gas lingered in their hollow. There was no end in sight to the natural gas development that was transforming the rural landscape into an industrial zone.

“There is no respect for rural areas and rural areas are the ones getting attacked,” says Annie. After years coping with all the development, the traffic, and the insecurity of the long term consequences associated with living next to dozens of gas wells they decided it was time to leave. They left their home in August 2014 and moved into an RV. What they hadn’t sold at auction was packed up and placed in a storage facility until the time they found their new home.

As I walked towards their RV a large barge of coal slowly drifted down the Ohio River. It had been a few months since the last time I saw Annie and John. The weight of what had just happened and the unknown destination ahead of them was still heavy on their minds. However, their hope remained clear: find a new home, ideally somewhere this could never happen again.

In recent years, West Virginia has had some of the highest rates of depopulation in the country. Many reasons have added to this such as the lack of employment opportunities and the mechanization and decline of the coal industry. After the Elk River chemical spill last January, dozens of for “For Sale” signs started popping up around Charleston. And now the natural gas boom has hastened the population drain.

On my journey throughout the state I have met dozens of residents facing the same reality as Annie and John. These residents’ stories bring to the surface larger issues that need to be addressed in our country today — mineral rights versus individual surface rights, eminent domain versus individual and community rights. Overall, these stories provoke the question — what do property rights really mean?

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

Lewis County, W.Va., resident Tom Bond. Photo by Keely Kernan.

As Lewis County resident Tom Bond states, “I would be forced to contribute the value of my property to a private enterprise. It is basically unconstitutional.” Bond is an 83-year-old cattle farmer from Lewis County and, like many residents of West Virginia, he does not own the minerals under the surface of his property.

Citizens across the nation are facing these challenges as natural gas development moves into their communities. What makes West Virginia unique is that in many ways this is history repeating itself. We have seen the legacy of the boom and bust coal industry, the poisoning of our waterways and the endless boarded up houses and empty store fronts that line the streets of towns that were once prosperous. In the southern part of the state the counties that produced the most coal are some of the poorest in the United States. We have seen wealth and resources leave and know what it is like to be left behind.

As I sat on the banks of the Ohio River and watched more coal barges flowing past I thought about the direction we are heading in yet again as a state. I have always believed in storytelling, particularly visual storytelling. I think it has the potential to connect us to people and places we might not otherwise know or understand. I hope that by sharing these stories I can help promote an important conversation about the type of future we want to share.

Watch the trailer for In the Hills and Hollows and learn more about the project here.

One month, two hearings on mountaintop removal

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - posted by thom
Dustin White, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, testifies before a House Subcommittee about mountaintop removal and its impacts on Appalachian communities.

Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition testifies before a House Subcommittee about the impacts of mountaintop removal on Appalachian communities. The head peering over Dustin’s shoulder is that of the author.

It’s rare for Appalachians to have their voices heard in Congress.

Once every year or two, though, someone from the region gets the chance to publicly address a congressional committee about the ongoing problems mountaintop removal coal mining is causing in our region.

Coal industry advocates would probably like to eliminate those occasions all together, but so far they’ve only succeeded in making them uncommon.

In the past month alone, Appalachians have testified about mountaintop removal mining at two different U.S. House hearings. The coal industry lobbyists must be getting sloppy.

Dustin White, a community organizer with our allies the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and an 11th generation West Virginian, testified recently before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Subcommittee Chairman Louie Gohmert (TX-1) wanted the hearing to be about how the Obama administration has ignored states during the writing of the Stream Protection Rule. For him, the hearing was about that.

But for Dustin and for us, the hearing was about the need for the federal government to help put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

“We will continue to go to the federal agencies as long as the state agencies ignore us, and our lives and homes are threatened by mountaintop removal …”

How can state regulatory agencies honestly be expected to be part of a federal rulemaking process when they have proven time and time again that they cannot perform their jobs to protect citizens from mining pollution. People living in mountain communities are experts in their own lives, and know practices like mountaintop removal are harmful and want action taken.”

A week before Dustin was heard, Dr. Michael Hendryx testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Dr. Hendryx is the foremost expert on the human health impacts related to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and he has led dozens of studies on the issue. He took full advantage of the opportunity (accidentally?) afforded to him and briefly explained his findings.

“Our research has shown that people who live near mountaintop removal are at higher risk, compared to people living farther away, for a wide set of health problems. We see, for example, that rates of lung cancer are higher in the mountaintop removal communities. We have also found higher death rates from heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease.

The increased mortality in mountaintop removal areas translates to approximately 1,460 excess deaths every year compared to death rates in other parts of Appalachia. In these estimates we have controlled statistically for other risks such as age, smoking, obesity, poverty and other variables; our results are not due to higher rates of smoking, for example, or higher poverty rates. We find that the most serious health problems are present where mountaintop removal is practiced relative to areas with other types of mining or no mining”

The Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee hearing was about H.R. 1644, or “The STREAM Act,” which would stop the Stream Protection Rule from being written, thus taking away one of the Obama administration’s greatest tools for ending mountaintop removal. Scientists shy away from commenting on policy and legislation, as it can be a bit of a risk for them personally. He continued:

“The Stream Act in my view is an unnecessary delay and a threat to human health. Instead, I call for the complete enforcement of existing stream buffer rules, or stronger rules that the [Office of Surface Mining] may put forth, to prevent the dumping of mining waste into streams.”

Lesson learned: never underestimate the courage of Michael Hendryx.

Dustin White did not change the mind of Rep. Louie Gohmert, who at one point went on a long “war on coal” tirade. Dr. Hendryx was the subject of entirely unprofessional and disparaging remarks from Rep. John Fleming (LA-4) during his appearance. But that’s to be expected. It only makes me admire Dustin White and Michael Hendryx more. Not just for putting up with it, but for handling themselves with strength and grace.

Congress does not want to help end mountaintop removal. They’d prefer not to hear about it. More importantly, though, they’d prefer it if you don’t hear about it.

Mountaintop removal is encroaching on communities across central Appalachia. They blasted mountains today, they blasted mountains yesterday, and they’ll blast mountains tomorrow. They won’t stop until they can’t make money off of it. Help us be heard.

Help yourself be heard. Let everyone know that mountaintop removal is still happening, it is wrong, and tell President Obama it must be stopped.

Appalachian communities are still at risk

Friday, May 29th, 2015 - posted by tom

Mapping the encroaching threat from mountaintop removal


One thing we at Appalachian Voices particularly pride ourselves on is our ability to work in the realm where technology, hard data and storytelling converge.

Over the years, we’ve applied these skills to develop tools on like What’s My Connection? and The Human Cost of Coal to show in compelling and unmistakable fashion how mountaintop removal coal mining is ransacking Appalachia’s communities and natural heritage.

Last month, we unveiled our latest project, Communities at Risk, an mapping tool revealing how mountaintop removal has been expanding closer to people’s homes in Central Appalachia — even as coal is in decline — and posing increasing threats to residents’ health and the environment.

EXPLORE: The Communities At Risk From Mountaintop Removal Mapping Tool

We used Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, mining permit databases and mapping data from SkyTruth to develop the interactive map and identify the 50 communities that are most at risk from mountaintop removal. The resulting map offers the first-ever time-lapse view of the destruction’s encroachment on Appalachian communities.

Behind all the data and coordinates, of course, are real people and communities, and that is what drives our work. The communities most at risk from mountaintop removal suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity. The health statistics are equally troubling; a 2011 study found double the cancer rates in counties with mountaintop removal compared to nearby counties without it.

Our goal with Communities at Risk is to ramp up the pressure on the White House to end this practice, which remains the single-most overwhelming environmental threat in the region. In the early days of President Obama’s administration, promises were made that regulating mountaintop removal would be based on science. The science on the dire impacts is definitive, yet the administration has failed to act accordingly.

WATCH: Communities At Risk — End Mountaintop Removal Now

Appalachians are working hard to reinvent their economy and outlast the fall of King Coal. Much of that future rests on protecting the air, the water, and the region’s unparalleled natural beauty.

It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations. As citizens have argued for years, cracking down on the continuing devastation of mountaintop removal is critical to moving Appalachia forward.

For Appalachia,

Tom Cormons