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The Least Sexy Part of Energize America

The Least Sexy Part of Energize America Email Print

Originally posted on DailyKos here By Devilstower
10/15/2006 11:48:42 PM EST
Energize America is chock full o’ cool. There are great ideas in the plan to expand solar, wind, and other renewable sources. There’s support for much improved conservation, and there are R&D targets that could take us to the next generation of clean power and keen cars.

However, this is the part that’s…eh, not so sexy. But it’s important.

In a plan that’s all about making sure America has all the energy it needs for the future, this is one part of the plan that’s about putting restrictions on an existing domestic energy resource.

This is where we outlaw mountaintop removal coal mining.

There are good objections to coal mining in general, especially with the array of noxious emissions produced from older plants — a major source of mercury and other heavy metals in seafood — and until someone gets serious about sequestration, CO2 levels produced from coal exceed all other sources. However, coal is also a relatively abundant domestic source. There are a lot of good-paying jobs in the coal industry located in areas that just don’t have much else. And, most of all, it currently provides just over half of all the electricity in the United States.

That last statement has a lot of implications. It’s not just the power, it’s the plants. More than half the electrical capacity of the US exists in the form of coal-fired plants, and there are a new crop of such plants on the horizon. Replacing that generation capacity with renewable sources is going to be a daunting task — and hey, that’s a challenge that’s set forth in the rest of Energize America.

In this piece, I want to address one of the worst aspects of coal mining: surface mining that involves valley fill. There are two general classes of mining that fall into this designation. One is the incredibly destructive process of “mountaintop removal,” in which all material above a coal seam is removed, pulverized, and pushed down slope into the surrounding valleys. A related method, “contour strip with valley fill,” is used in areas where the top of a mountain is too far above the coal to make removing the whole peak an option. Instead, they mine around the mountain, following the coal seam. This process cuts a shelf around the mountain, dumps material intro streams, and leaves a strange-looking “mesa” standing at the center. In many ways, it’s worse than mountaintop removal. Not only are the surrounding valleys ruined and the scenic mountain turned into a freakish knob surrounding by crumbling stone cliffs, but it leaves land that’s suitable for… nothing. Nothing at all. Just rubble, ruined streams, and ugly scars across the landscape.

Maybe the worst thing about valley fill mining is that it doesn’t have to happen. The amount of coal that can be recovered through these methods which can’t also be economically recovered through other methods is vanishingly small. The coal could be recovered through underground mining in some cases, or surface mining that requires protection of streams and restoration of original contours and species diversity. Yes, both these methods have their own issues, but both are far better than either form of valley fill mining. As a bonus, these methods employ more people than it would take to mine the coal through mountaintop removal.

Some might argue, especially in light of recent well-publicized disasters, that undergroud mining is more dangerous than valley fill, but while underground mining is dangerous to the miners, valley fill mining is dangerous for the whole surrounding community. That danger doesn’t end with the pollution of water sources. The valleys in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where almost all valley fill mining occurs, are steep and narrow. Streams that run through these valleys can turn into raging rivers when fed by rainfall, and when the valleys are nearly choked by the debris from mountaintop removal, it can lead to severe floods. Even worse, the sludge and runoff from mountaintop removal is generally stored in “impoundments” behind makeshift dams. In 2000, one of these dams burst, releasing 300 million gallons of toxic sludge. In 1972, another impoundment broke along a small stream called Buffalo Creek. The resulting flood killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left 4,000 homeless. That’s how dangerous it is to be dumping this crap into mountain valleys.

One other note on the Buffalo Creek flood. In a textbook example of what happens when companies are allowed to buy politicians, the State of West Virginia sued the Pittston Company, who built the failed dam, for $100 million but Republican governor Archie Moore crafted a backroom settlement for just $1 million right before leaving office. If that’s not bad enough, Moore was re-elected governor in 1985.

So why do some coal companies continue to press for mountaintop removal and contour stripping, and why do their beck-and-call congressmen cry foul at any attempt to end the practice? Because it’s cheaper. Not only does it take fewer people to operate this kind of mine, it can often be done with “truck and shovel” equipment, the same kind of equipment often used in road construction or other earth-moving operations. It greatly reduces the costs associated with reclamation under “return to contour” mining. And it cuts back on the amount of “rehandle,” where the mine is engaged in moving the same pile of material around to keep it out of the way while mining.

So the bottom line is that in order to save a buck, they’re willing to cut down the mountains, spoil the streams, ruin a landscape that took
half a billion years to form, and endanger the everyone in the area. They leave behind more cleanup costs, more health care costs, and lost dollars for tourism and other outdoor activities. Oh, and while the reduced equipment cost of a truck and shovel operation allows many “small operators” to play in this space — a fact that politicians often cite in suggesting that this form of mining allows in new competitors — the ones that do mine this way are those most likely to declare bankruptcy at the end of an operation and walk away.

Don’t have any doubt about it; mountaintop removal is a net cost to the state. It’s only the power wielded by pet legislators who depend on the companies for campaign dollars that keeps it legal.

Energize America and Mountaintop Removal
In Energize America’s list of proposed legislation, the sixth section is titled The Clean Coal Generation Act (“Clean Coal”). I know that many people have trouble with the term “clean coal,” and for the most part, I agree with those reservations. Just trust me when I say the “We Understand Coal Has Real Problems But If You’re Going To Do It You Might As Well Do It In A More Environmentally Friendly Way Act” is a poor title.

The Clean Coal Generation Act contains sections on several areas related to coal, not just a ban on mountaintop removal. But I’m going to do something today that you’ve never seen in any Energize America diary. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve seen in any diary. I’m going to give you the proposed draft language for the legislation in all its legislative we-make-Death-Valley-seem-l ike-a-swimming-pool dryness.

The text here is based on such thrilling documents as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, and regulations from the Office of Surface Mining. On the one hand, I wouldn’t blame you for printing out a copy of this diary, and keeping it by your bed as a cure for insomnia. But for corporations, lobbyists, and the congressmen who love them, this should be a huge wakeup call.

This is legislation not written on K Street. It’s been written right here, in public, with the help of thousands. Oh, and it’s available for review, comment, and revision months before any possible vote, not minutes. So you important people go right along with your golfing vacations. We’ll be putting publicly-drafted legislation in the hands of honest congressmen while you’re away.

As always, this is a draft of the proposed legislation. Feedback, criticism, corrections, and suggestions are welcome. Comments on the
author’s IQ, EQ, spelling ability, and alignment with evil coal trolls are less welcome, but accepted.

Note that all the indentation used in an actual piece of legislation is difficult to reproduce in a blog post, so bear with me. The original Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 can be found here (pdf). You’ll want to keep it handy, as much of this language modifies this existing law. The 1977 regulation language is actually pretty good, and quite pro-environment, except that it leaves loopholes for unusual conditions and allows the states to determine the types of mining to be allowed. This revision snugs some of those loopholes closed.

Energize America Part VI
Clean Coal Generation Act of 2007


This Act may be cited as the Clean Coal Generation Act of 2007.


(a) Section 201(f) of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. 1231(c)) is amended–

(1) by raising the maximum fine that may be imposed on federal employees found to be in violation of the Act to $25,000.


(a) In General- Section 402 of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. 1232) is amended–

(1) by striking subsection (a) and inserting the following

(a) In General- Any operator of a coal mining operation subject to this Act shall pay to the Secretary of the Interior, for deposit in the fund–

(1) for any coal produced by surface coal mining 50 cents per ton of coal produced;

(2) for any coal produced by underground coal mining 20 cents per ton of coal produced;

(a) In General- Section 101 of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. 1232) is amended–

(1) by striking subsection (k) and inserting the following

(k) the method of mountaintop removal and other forms of valley fill mining being inherently inimitable to ecologically sound mining practice, the useful reclamation of the land, and the maintaining of healthy streams, such practices will not be allowed to continue after 1 July 2008, (l) the cooperative effort established by this Act is necessary to prevent or mitigate adverse environmental effects of present and future surface coal mining operations.

(b) In General- Section 402 of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. 1232) is amended–

(1) by raising the maximum possible fine for any person, corporate officer, agent or director, on behalf of a coal mine operator, who knowingly makes any false statement, representation or certification, or knowingly fails to make any statement, representation or certification required in this section to $100,000.

(c) In General- Section 515 of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. 1232) is amended–

(1) by striking 515.3 and inserting the following

(3) with respect to all surface coal mining operations backfill, compact (where advisable to insure stability or to prevent leaching of toxic materials), and grade in order to restore the approximate original contour of the land with all highwalls, spoil piles, and depressions eliminated (unless small depressions are needed in order to retain moisture to assist revegetation).

(A) In surface coal mining which is carried out in a location where the thickness of the coal deposits relative to the volume of the overburden is large and where the operator demonstrates that the overburden and other spoil and waste materials are insufficient, giving due consideration to volumetric expansion, to restore the approximate original contour, the operator, at a minimum, shall backfill, grade , and compact (where advisable) using all available overburden and other spoil and waste materials to attain the closest possible approximation of original contours, and shall provide adequate drainage and cover all acid forming and other toxic materials, in order to achieve an ecologically sound land use compatible with the surrounding region.
(B) In surface coal mining where the amount of overburden and other spoil and waste materials removed in the course of the mining operation significantly exceeds the amount required to restore the approximate original contour, giving due consideration to volumetric expansion, the operator shall after restoring the approximate contour, backfill, grade, and compact the excess overburden and other spoil and waste materials to attain the closest approximation of original contours, and in any location exceeding those contours maintain the lowest grade, with no location exceeding the angle of repose, and cover all acid-forming, and other toxic materials, in order to achieve an ecologically sound land use compatible with the surrounding region.
(C) In no case shall an operation be allowed to continue operations after July 1, 2008 in which surface mining is done by the method of mountaintop removal, as defined in this Act, or other forms of surface mining in which large amounts of overburden and spoil are relocated into alluvial valleys or areas of stream deposits, or into permanent streams. No state or local authority shall permit a mine to enter operations, or continue operation, in which surface mining is not carried out under return to original contour regulations with the exceptions permitted in subsection (a) and subsection (b).
(D) All overburden or spoil shall be shaped and graded in such a way as to prevent slides, erosion, and water pollution and must be revegetated in accordance with the requirements of this Act;
(E) Approval of alternative post-mining use of land, as authorized in this Act, shall not remove the obligation to return all land disturbed by surface mining to original contours, except as noted within subsection (A) and subsection (B).

You’ll notice that in addition to outlawing valley fill operations, this section also sets fees on officials who don’t follow the rules, and mine operators who lie about their results. The values listed ($25,000 and $100,000 respectively) may seem small, but they are ten times what’s in the current bill — where these values haven’t be updated since 1977. There’s also an increase in the payment that has to be extended for reclamation to 50 cents a ton for surface mining. This is an increase from the current 35 cents (I didn’t go 10x here, as much coal only sells for around $6, but there’s a good argument for raising it to at least $1, a value which would change the economics for coal in the Appalachian region), I also chopped legislation that let lignite mines off paying much less. Yes, lignite is cheaper than other coal on the market, but it’s highly polluting and just as tough to reclaim.

If you’re wondering about all that stuff in the middle about overburden and backfill, its’s there to address situations in which the coal was so thick that the spoil (the material left over after mining) isn’t enough to return to contour, or where the coal was so thin that the spoil is too much to return to original contour. In both cases, it boils down to “get as close as possible” and prohibits leaving any slope at an angle greater than “the angle of repose,” which is the angle at which a slope is self-supporting.

Images are from Wikipedia. For more information, I urge you to visit I Love Mountains.

Article originally posted at Political Cortex.

Article provided to us courtesy of Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.





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