The Biggest Environmental Crime in America

Pigeonroost Hollow, West Virginia

The coal industry is always talking about jobs as if that is the only important issue in Appalachia. For the sake of these jobs, we must sacrifice the mountains and streams, and we must poison the air and water, and destroy the local communities? What is the true cost of these jobs and what is the real impact of these jobs on Appalachian communities and the Appalachian environment?

On January 13, 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Clean Water Act Section 404 “dredge-and-fill permit” for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. The Spruce No. 1 Mine would have been the largest mountaintop removal (MTR) mine in US history. Predictably, the coal industry decried the loss of the 250 jobs the mine would have provided over its 15-year lifespan. The EPA, they claimed, had declared war on coal, and war on West Virginia’s economy.

The Spruce No. 1 Mine has been the most contested coal mine in US history. It would impact 3,113 acres of Appalachian hardwood forests, create five massive valley fills, permanently burying six miles of mountain headwater streams under hundreds of feet of toxic mine spoils, and directly impact another ten miles of streams, all to mine 44 million tons of coal. The Spruce No. 1 Mine has been in operation since 2007, and currently employs 24 people or about a tenth of the total proposed workforce, and has an annual production of about 600,000 tons of coal.

To put this in perspective, last year the US burned about 965 million tons of coal to make electricity; at this rate the Spruce mine would provide less than one month’s worth of electricity for the nation over its entire 15-year lifespan.

Environmental groups have opposed the Spruce No. 1 Mine since it was first proposed as an extension of Arch Coal’s Dal-Tex Mine in 1997. The original plan would have buried more than 10 miles of stream in the Pigeonroost Hollow area near the town of Blair, West Virginia. In Bragg v. Robertson the EPA joined the West Virginia Highland Conservancy and other environmental groups in challenging the legality of the 404 permits. In 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II agreed with the plaintiffs, and after making a personal visit to the mine site and walking the creeks, Haden issued an order blocking the Army Corps from issuing any more 404 permits.

Judge Haden’s decision was immediately attacked by the coal industry and West Virginia’s political leaders and they appealed to the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where Haden’s injunction was stayed and the case was remanded back to the US District Court. Arch Coal agreed to delay opening the Spruce No. 1 Mine until the courts could decide on the legality of the 404 permits.

After more legal wrangling, the Army Corps issued the 404 valley fill permits for a scaled down version of 2,300 acres on January 22, 2007. The permits authorized the discharge of fill material into over seven miles of creeks, and the company began mining in Seng Camp Creek, including construction of one valley fill, and has expanded every year since opening.

Since the year ending 2010, the Spruce No. 1 Mine has produced 1.58 million tons of coal and currently encompasses over 200 acres of mountain tops and one valley. And the 200 acre figure can be misleading, as the mine boundary is gerrymandered along the crest of the peaks and ridge tops, so the actual impacted area is much larger.

The footprint of the mine also includes the site of the former Sharples High School, on Highway 17. The school has been replaced by a coal tipple load-out and a coal processing plant. Over half a million tons of pulverized coal per year loads out at the Cardinal Processing plant and is shipped to three different power plants in Tennessee and Alabama. The processing plant is further up Seng Camp Creek and includes a dammed sludge pond surrounded by gob piles. Seng Camp Creek seems to have a large capacity to receive additional mine spoils, so many more peaks and ridge tops will likely be mined even without the 404 permits. Mountaintop removal coal mining will continue at the Spruce No. 1 without the 404 permits. Indeed, this seems to be exactly what is happening.

The Tennessee Valley Authority operates the three power stations that receive coal from the Spruce No 1: Bull Run near Knoxville, TN; Johnsonville, near Nashville, TN; and Colbert, near Huntsville, Al. These three power plants have a combined capacity of 5,600 plus megawatts, enough to power some 2 million homes. When people say that mountain top removal is about jobs, one might think about the costs of these 24 jobs. Sharples High School is a memory, and the town of Sharples is a ghost town as the area is being depopulated. The mountains are gone. The streams and groundwater are poisoned. The forests are gone. No one will ever want live here again. Some of these communities were here when this country was still an English Colony. These are among the oldest mountains on Earth.

Last year, a total of 35,398 peopled worked in the US surface mining industry, and only 6,886 of those surface mining jobs were in West Virginia. That number decreases each year even as coal production rises due to the use of newer and bigger machines. Additionally there are 60,000 jobs in operations & maintenance in all U.S. coal-fired power plants and that number is also decreasing as older, dirtier plants are taken offline. However, the number of wind industry jobs surpassed coal mining jobs in the US for the first time in 2008, when wind employment increased to 85,000, and the industry is still growing and expected to reach 500,000 jobs sometime in the next 20 years.

Can we honestly say this issue is about 24 temporary jobs; or even 250 jobs? If you look at the numbers you’ll see that mountain top removal not only destroys the mountains and streams, pollutes the air and water, and poisons people who live in Appalachia, it also destroys jobs and contributes to making West Virginia one of the poorest places in the US. As Robert F Kennedy Jr. has said, it is the biggest environmental crime in America and it must be stopped.

MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero. He can be reached at: mikeroselle@hotmail.com

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MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: mikeroselle@hotmail.com

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