In Defense of Mountains On the Frontlines Against Destructive Mining

It was early in the morning of July 5 when Ed Wiley arrived at the West Virginia state capitol building and began his hunger strike. Many hours later, he was still sitting on the steps, refusing to move, eat or leave until he could speak with the governor. Set beside him was an aerial photograph of Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia, located 150 feet from a Massey coal processing silo and 400 yards below a 2.8 billion-gallon coal waste dam.

For Mountain Justice Summer, environmental groups from around the south converged to protest destructive mining practices.©V. Stockman/www.ohvec.org

Wiley wanted an explanation for the safety risk posed to students—particularly his 10-year-old granddaughter—who routinely inhale air contaminated with coal dust migrating from the silo. He and other community members also feared that the dam, which was not built according to code, could represent potential disaster.

“A lot of kids there have asthma or other breathing problems, and a few have died from cancer,” Wiley says. “I picked my granddaughter up from school one day because she was sick and I watched a tear slide down her face while she was looking up at the coal mines. That’s when I vowed I would do something to help those kids.”

Days before, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had approved a permit for a second silo to be constructed alongside the first, a mere 220 feet from school property. State and federal laws prohibit any new mining activity within 300 feet of a school, but agency officials argued at a hearing that these silos were exempt from the rule because they were given permits before the federal Surface Mining and Control Act of 1977 (SMCRA) came into effect.

The agency’s position was undermined when a local newspaper reported that both silos were actually outside the original permit area. New boundary lines had been drawn over time on maps that Massey engineers filed periodically with the DEP, but Massey never applied for a permit revision, and the DEP never officially granted one.

“The DEP should have gone back and checked the maps,” said Sarah Holtam of Coal River Mountain Watch, a nonprofit based in Coal River Valley, the region where the school is located. “The silos are completely off the permit boundary, and coal dust is filtering inside the school. When I touched a window sill inside the building, my fingers turned black from the dust.”

Massey Energy, which declined comment, is the same company responsible for the environmental disaster in Martin County, Kentucky, which occurred when 300 million gallons of toxic sludge burst through a coal waste dam and contaminated 75 miles of waterways. Sludge is the liquid waste resulting from the coal washing and contains heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

Activists at Coal River Mountain Watch and other organizations connect these past and potential future disasters with the greater issue of mountaintop removal mining, a practice routinely used in Appalachia by Teco Coal, Arch Coal, A&G Coal Corporation, National Coal, Massey Energy and its subsidiaries.

Mountaintop removal mining begins with forest clear-cuts, and utilizes explosives to blast off the tops of mountain peaks. Activists say that the resulting vegetation loss increases the risk of floods and landslides, and waste byproducts poison streams and waterways. Once the coal has been excavated, millions of tons of “overburden”—the crumpled debris of former mountaintops—are discarded into surrounding valleys, creating valley fills that have permanently buried more than 1,200 miles of headwaters streams, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“One of the biggest problems about mountaintop removal is that it employs so few people,” says Hillary Hosta, an activist with the Coalfield Sustainability Project. “Billions are being made annually in this industry, and yet it operates in some of the poorest counties in the nation. Once the coal companies pack up and leave, the communities are left with boarded-up houses and businesses and a devastated environment.”

According to Paloma Galindo of United Mountain Defense, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based nonprofit, permit violations such as the case at Marsh Fork are the norm rather than the exception. “Coal companies break the rules all the time,” she says. “Often, when a company mines outside a permit area, the Office of Surface Mining just reissues another permit. There’s no fine, just some new paperwork. Another problem, known as segmentation, occurs when companies apply for permits for smaller areas than they actually plan to mine, which allows them to bypass the burden of an environmental impact study. One of the major mine sites in Tennessee actually spans seven permitted zones, but as anyone can see it’s just one vast, interconnected mine.”

This past summer, activists from all over the country swarmed Appalachia with the mission to interrupt business as usual for coal companies and government agencies involved with mountaintop removal mining. In a nonviolent grassroots effort called Mountain Justice Summer (MJS), organized by a coalition of anti-mountaintop removal mining groups from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, activists used every tactic from street theater to soil testing to call attention to the issue. MJS-led rallies sprung up in the streets of Richmond, Lexington and Knoxville, attracting media attention with stunts like a “mountain takeover,” which consisted of a handful of activists locking themselves to a barricade erected in the middle of a work road on Zeb Mountain, the largest mine site in Tennessee.

“Mountain Justice Summer helped reinvigorate the anti-mountaintop removal movement,” said John Johnson, a Knoxville-based activist with Katuah Earth First!, one of the participating groups. “In all, it was a very successful summer.”

MJS also joined Ed Wiley and the Coal River Valley community in the ongoing battle against the coal preparation plant at Marsh Fork Elementary. Its efforts, along with Wiley’s one-man hunger strike—which eventually landed him an impromptu meeting with Governor Joe Manchin—finally led to success when the DEP revoked the permit for the second silo that was to be built beside the school.

Yet matters at Marsh Fork are far from being settled. State-ordered air quality tests that were conducted before classes began measured particulate count, but it remains unclear what airborne chemicals may be present. “They found there are as many particulates inside the gym as there are outside,” says Hosta. “But since they didn’t use the same scale the EPA uses to set regulations, there is nothing for us to go back and compare the results to in order to find out how dangerous the air is for kids to breathe. And we still have no idea what carcinogens may be present in the dust.”

Hosta, Wiley and other activists responded to the dissatisfying governmental response with another trip to the state capitol. “This time, we brought along a 10-pound roll of bologna,” Wiley says, “and we labeled it “Marsh Fork Air Quality Tests.””

In the meantime, the Boone, North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices is working to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would prevent the dumping of mining waste into streams. “It’s the failure to enforce environmental laws that is allowing this to happen,”

; says Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices. “It is going to take some national pressure from outside the coalfields to stop this practice.” The group is trying to build grassroots support with a free “mountaintop removal kit” that includes a 15-minute DVD entitled Mountaintop Treasures.