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Coal County Woes

Driving into Wise County, you’d be hard pressed to discover the presence of some of the most ecologically damaging mining practices legally allowed. The drive is scenic, winding up Highway 58 through the valleys of southwest Virginia. But every once in a while, you may notice a hint of coal. It might be a coal chute crossing over the highway, or a refining station by the side of the road, or railroad cars waiting under a dumping station. These are the signs that say “big coal” to an outsider.

To the residents of the county, however, the evidence of coal mining is hard to ignore. Ecological damage is only one of the problems facing the residents of the county. They also tell tales of mining practices gone awry. Several residents related stories of grandparents being blown off their feet by a series of nearby explosions. Others told tales of midnight coal trucks waking up the neighborhood. Residents of one hilltop enthralled the room with stories of streams blackened by runoff and dumping from the mining sites. Other stories detailed quick pumping of sludge ponds the night before inspections, and overloaded trucks barreling down the highways. In short, the overwhelming consensus among the residents in attendance was that the Wise County mines consistently dodge the law.

Worse than these stories, though, were the experiences of people who had called in the state inspectors to address these problems. Every person who spoke on this subject revealed a pattern of negligence, apathy, and outright refusal to face reality. When reporting an incident in which his mother was blown off her feet by repeated blasting (in violation of timing ordinances designed to prevent such an event), a local man was assured by inspectors that what his family had experienced was, in fact, not possible. Reporting waste dumps into a local stream, another family was assured by an inspector that it wasn’t a problem, because the stream was “dead anyway.” Citizens who have filed repeated complaints have been slapped with frivolous lawsuits by the mining companies. Although none of these cases made it to court, one local man stated that he’d had to pay over $6,000 in lawyer fees before the case was tossed out.

In response to this sort of disregard, the some of the citizens of Wise County have started organizing, both to prevent further mining excesses and to oppose the installation of a new fluidized bed coal plant in their county. They are currently working with the Sierra Club, volunteer groups and local environmental organizations to attempt to gather enough evidence to force the state of Virginia to do something to help them.

They are working to oppose the new fluidized bed plant for an entirely different reason. The new coal plant will be installed just a few miles from AEP’s Clinch River facility, one of the dirtiest power plants in Virginia. AEP claims that once the new fluidized bed plant is operational, it will finally shut down the Clinch River facility, which has been in operation for over forty years. Local residents, however, fear that AEP will simply use the pollution credits it will gain from operation of the new fluidized bed facility to ensure that the Clinch River plant stays in operation for years to come, despite pending pollution control legislation. For anyone unfamiliar with the credit system, this is how it works: Someone had the brilliant idea that power companies would be inspired to pollute less if they were allowed to buy, sell, and transfer pollution “credits” between plants. These “credits” represent thousands of tons of pollutants. The state or region involved has maximum pollution limits over a large area, and simply requires power companies to meet those limit. This is where the credits come in. Power companies can lower pollution at one plant, then used the saved credits from that plant to allow another plant to pollute more, thereby removing any incentive these companies had to clean up all their power plants. They just have to have a few very clean facilities in order for the rest to pollute as much as they can. Power companies leap at this opportunity because they would rather play the credit game than install $10-$20 million in pollution controls on every power plant.

The citizens of Wise County are fighting a juggernaught. Between the mining regulations and the fight against the new power plant, hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and the companies involved are not going to let that kind of investment just slip away. So keep your eye on the news from Wise County, and if there’s anything you can do to help, don’t hesitate to contact Appalachian Voices. Every little bit helps.

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