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Mountaintop removal mining is a crime against Appalachia

Numerous health studies on strip mining have cleared the way for federal intervention

April 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal last month for an effective Appalachian regeneration fund opened a  door to the future for ailing coal mining communities. The Power Plus Plan supports reclamation and reforestation projects, job training and transition programs for unemployed coal miners, as well as pension plans for retired miners. 

The plan’s focus on diversifying the region’s economy is welcome acknowledgment that it is locked in a “death spiral,” as one analyst recently noted — a result of the coal industry’s shift to the heartland and western coal fields and a rapidly changing global energy market.

But for Appalachia to truly move on, another door must be closed on its deadly past. It’s time for Obama and for Congress to recognize the indubitable scientific data on the mounting health damages of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining and enact a moratorium on all such radical strip mining operations through the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act.

The lethal effects of MTR mining — in which the tops of mountains are lopped off and dumped into valleys to expose coal seams — are no longer up for debate.

In what should have been game-changing news last fall, a team of scientists from West Virginia University’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center found that “dust collected from MTR communities promotes lung cancer.”

Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University Bloomington and one of the study’s authors, added:

Previous studies have shown that people who live in these communities have higher lung cancer rates not due just to smoking, but with this study we now have solid evidence that dust collected from residential areas near MTR sites causes cancerous changes to human lung cells.

This study follows two-dozen peer-reviewed health studies that have documented the high rates of birth defects, heart disease and cancer in communities that face the fallout of millions of pounds of mining explosives, silica dust and pulverized heavy metals in waterways.

Locals have witnessed the death of their landscape as a precursor to the death in their own communities. “Near the once booming coal mining towns of Matoaka and Montcalm in Mercer County, West Virginia, the once steep mountainside covered in trees and local fauna is now barren and unrecognizable,” Wendy Johnson, a farmer and librarian who grew up in the area, said, describing the long-term repercussions of a nearby MTR operation. “A few homes sit across the road from the mine, which reaches all the way down to the roadside now, faced with massive amounts of run-off. A once lush mountainside is now a barren and muddy landscape.”

How much more wreckage will it take for a top-level Obama official to even visit an MTR operation — a request by affected residents that in six years has never been answered?

Leaders in Washington can take responsibility for residents affected by extreme MTR practices or leave them to the whims of mining outlaws in the marketplace.

Thirty years ago, I listened to the beleaguered breathing of union mine leader John Woody in Matoaka as he described the industry’s denial of deadly black lung problems in the face of scientific evidence, and the need for federal intervention to implement new workplace safety laws.

I hear the same expressions of denial about mountaintop removal’s deadly impact from coal industry lobbyists and their political sycophants in coal-heavy state governments today. And while there is some movement — last month, health officials in West Virginia finally agreed to review existing research on the health effects of MTR mining Appalachians can’t afford to wait on state agencies entrenched in coal politics. 

Leaders in Washington thus have a basic choice: Take responsibility for residents affected by extreme MTR practices or leave them to the whims of mining outlaws in the marketplace who continue to apply for new permits, even as the financial viability of high-cost central Appalachian coal bottoms out.

Because let’s be clear: Mountaintop removal is in a tailspin. It only provides a fraction of our national coal production — an estimated 5-7 percent. The jobs argument has long been debunked: Since my first interview with Appalachian coal miners in 1983, two thirds of coal mining jobs have disappeared or been displaced to the West due to heavily mechanized strip mining and the underground technique known as longwall mining, not environmental regulations.

Even banking institutions have recognized MTR’s lack of tenability. PNC Financial lined up last month behind a slew of other major banks that have already made the same decision to stop lending money to MTR operations.

In recent weeks, coal-mining communities and national environmental groups have taken initiative as well, filing law suits against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act, and against the Department of Interior for failing to take over floundering state regulatory programs, as required by the Surface Mining Control and Regulatory Act.

On Monday, in response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to protect two species of crayfish from Appalachia under the Endangered Species Act. And the White House has announced it will soon release long-awaited revisions to the controversial "stream buffer zone" on mining discharges, which regulates the proximity of operations near waterways.

But a half-century of irreversible damage has made it clear that such regulatory compromises are no longer sufficient. Evidence in hand, we must recognize that mountaintop removal mining is a crime against the citizenry’s health and must be abolished, not simply regulated. It’s time for the president and Congress to bring it to an end with an immediate moratorium.

Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming “Damnatio Memoriae,” a play on immigration in Italy, among other works.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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