Foes of mountaintop mining, rebuffed at local and state levels, taking fight to Washington

By Mary Jo Shafer
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

August 2007

PHYLLIS, Ky. -- The curling dirt road to the home of Rully and Erica Urias, near Kentucky’s eastern tip, is a path through a changed landscape. Their home is surrounded by strip mines that remove the tops of mountains to reach the underlying coal seams and push dirt and rock into heads of the surrounding hollows.

Rully and his mother Brenda, who lives next door, have worked for coal companies. They don’t want to see all mining go away, but they want current laws to be enforced and they want mountaintop removal limited.

They say blasting routinely shakes their homes and coal dust settles over everything, so that Brenda says she “can’t even keep lawn furniture outside.” And they worry about floods, erosion and water pollution from the mines.

Since strip mining came to their road two years ago, the family has watched their neighbors and relatives move away. “People got tired of it,” Brenda said. “Most people sold out.” (From left: Erica, Brenda, Makayla and Rully Urias. Photo by Mary Jo Shafer)

But the Urias family is determined to stay, and they have spoken out about the effects of mining. They have found some allies in their fight, but most come from outside the Appalachian coalfield – activists, authors and journalists who write stories for national and regional newspapers and magazines.

“We get help from Louisville and Lexington, but as far as around us, you won’t see a lot of support,” said Rully. Their neighbors in Pike County are “told we’re trying to take their jobs away from them,” Rully said.

Much the same has been said in the legislatures of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, where efforts to limit mountaintop removal have failed or never gotten off the ground. So now the debate is moving to the halls of Congress, where opponents think they have a better chance for change.

Chuck Nelson, of Sylvester, W. Va., an underground miner who dislikes mountaintop removal, agreed that in his state the coal industry is too powerful and intimidating for restrictions to pass. He said a regional alliance of opponents could organize communities across state lines and “overcome that power.”

For opponents, the term “mountaintop removal” conjures up images of decapitated hills, fouled streams and a landscape forever changed, not for the better.

For others, the practice means more developable land for Central Appalachia, good-paying jobs and a well-managed natural resource.

Because that view is widely held in the Appalachian coalfield, opponents acknowledge that they must turn the tide of coalfield opinion to be successful, even in Congress.

Widespread opposition from coalfield residents to industry practices in the 1960s and 1970s helped lead to the passage of the 1977 federal strip-mine law, but now supporters of mountaintop removal point to the economic benefits of mining and the development on reclaimed sites.

“Things flourish” where you have those sorts of new developments, said Tom “Tick” Lewis of Hazard, Ky., He cites local developments as diverse as a wildlife management area where elk now roam, to sites for Wal-Marts, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, industrial parks and golf courses.

Reclaimed land can be a “productive natural resource” for grazing, wildlife habitat and forestry, said Carl Zipper, director of the Powell River Project at Virginia Tech, which works with the coal industry to “enhance reclamation through research and education.”

Opponents say much of the land permitted for mountaintop removal is far from infrastructure, making development unfeasible. They also note that it is impossible to reclaim the diverse forest ecosystem destroyed by mining, and long-term problems, like the pollution of waterways, will persist even after reclamation is over.

Lewis concedes that if mountaintop removal is going on behind one’s house, then “it becomes more personal.”

“We’re throwaway people”

The first thing a visitor sees when pulling into the Urias family’s driveway, where their houses sit tucked into a forested hollow, are boxes of bottled water stacked neatly in the front yard.

The water is delivered to them by TECO Coal Corp., they said, because, since the surface mining began around their home, their water is unfit to use.

Several miles to the southwest, in Letcher County near the Virginia border, mines operate behind the home Sam and Evelyn Gilbert of Eolia, Ky. (Photo, by Mary Jo Shafer, shows Sam Gilbert at an active and partially reclaimed mine)

The Gilberts successfully fought the permit for a valley fill that would have been placed behind their home. But they feel like they are up against powerful forces. “We’re throwaway people. They look upon us as ‘the hell with them, they’re of no benefit to us.’ The coal is more important,” said Evelyn.

Sam has worked in underground mines, on strip mines and in highway construction. He firmly declares that he is not opposed to mining — it helped support him for decades. But he thinks mountaintop removal is wrong. “Mountaintop removal is done for greed,” he said.

Ten men from Eolia work on the site near the Gilberts’ house, Sam said. “They won’t say anything because of their jobs,” he said. And many local residents still live on land leased “cheaply” from the coal companies, he said. “They can’t speak out,” for fear of losing their leases, he said.

Gilbert said the fight to limit mountaintop removal needs to involve all levels of government. Federal laws should be passed and strictly enforced and local and state governments should be held accountable for enforcing these laws, he said. Gilbert and the Urias couple are members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a social-justice group opposed to mountaintop removal.

Turning public opinion

Mountaintop removal opponents have “emotion” on their side while proponents have the facts, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “Emotions will trump facts just about every time,” he said.

Because it is an emotional issue and there is a “knee-jerk” perception that mountaintop removal is bad, Caylor said he could envision public opinion turning. Legislation could gain support and could be reintroduced over and over until it progresses, he said.

Legislation to limit mountaintop removal in Kentucky, by banning valley fills that bury streams, has twice died in the state House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

In West Virginia, the other state where mountaintop removal is prevalent, “It would be pointless to go to the Legislature,” said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

Lovett said more limits on mountaintop removal mining on the state level have “zero chance.” West Virginia is “much more dominated by coal” than other Appalachian states and coal is “spread throughout the state,” he said.

Lovett says the strategy he follows is to use lawsuits and permit challenges to “fight the worst abuses, stop things as much as we can and hold the line until we get an administration that would enforce the laws.”

Tennessee has a much smaller coal industry and fewer mountaintop mines than the other three states, and has a hearty tourism base, which could influence the political climate on the issue. The state’s student legislature has submitted legislation to ban all surface mining in the state. The bill has yet to find a sponsor in the legislature.

Carol Judy of Clairfield, Tenn., said she doesn’t “look for the political will” in her lifetime to make real change. She compares the way the land in Appalachia has been treated with how the people are treated.

“Our voice is ignored, or made fun of, or belittled,” she said. “I think it’s so sad that people in my community tell me that they can’t speak out. It makes it look like it’s just a few oddballs” who are opposed.

In southwest Virginia, that sense of isolation is heightened, said Kathy Selvage, vice president of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “We’re lost,” she said. “ Kentucky and West Virginia have achieved a degree of exposure that southwest Virginia has not.”

Aligned with the Sierra Club, Selvage’s group is headquartered in Appalachia, Va., where in 2004 a three-year-old boy, Jeremy Davidson, was killed when a half-ton boulder dislodged from a strip mine crashed into his house while he slept.

That event helped to galvanize opposition in the region, said Selvage. But, as in the other affected states, it is hard for them to speak out because they feel intimidated, she said. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” she said. “People have to be nurtured.”

Selvage is not optimistic about change on the state level. Politicians from the eastern part of the state “don’t understand what we live with every day,” she said. “They don’t come to southwest Virginia, don’t see the mountaintop removal in our backyards.”

In Kentucky's Harlan and Letcher counties, on the Virginia border, public opinon about mining and the environment is deeply divided, according to polling done for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire as part of a survey of certain counties in selected regions of rural America. Harlan and Letcher were the counties chosen to represent Appalachia.

The poll asked, "For the future of your community, do you think it is more important to use natural resources to create jobs, or to conserve natural resources for future generations? In the two counties, 37 percent said it's more important to create jobs, 33 percent chose "conserve natural resources" and 30 percent volunteered that the two interests were equal.

Organizing for Washington

With prospects for state action poor, opponents have directed their gaze to Washington. More than 100 traveled there in May to lobby for federal legislation, the Clean Water Protection Act, HR 2169. The law, which has at least 79 co-sponsors, would limit mountaintop-removal mining by overturning a Bush administration change to the Clean Water Act that reclassified mining waste and made it acceptable to dump the debris into valleys, covering streams.

West Virginia’s Nelson said building an alliance across state borders is crucial to turning public opinion. Organizations and citizens should “come together and form one coalition,” he said. Their influence would grow and they could work together toward change, he said.

Nelson joined about 70 others at the Mountain Justice Training Camp in the coal-laden Cumberland Plateau of East Tennessee in May. For a week, organizers held workshops and strategy sessions, shared stories, networked and planned for the future.

Judy said she can see some hope in the younger generation, like some of the attendees at the training camp. “These kids are a testament that all is not well and they’re not OK with the status quo,” she said.

While local foes of mountaintop removal value the help they get from outside the coalfield, there can be tensions when outsiders bring their activism to the mountains, said Julie Shepherd, a North Carolina native who is an operations and production assistant at WMMT Radio in Whitesburg, Ky.

Outsiders often don’t understand the complexity of the issues and can unwittingly uphold stereotypes of the mountains, Shepherd said. “Local people need to drive the movement,” she said, adding that the tone and attitude of people from outside the coalfield can come across as “We know what’s best.”

Shepherd said solutions could come from inside the coalfield: “If the political climate was right, there could be a local movement.”

Even if the fight moves outside the coalfield, with federal legislators or state lawmakers from population centers ultimately deciding the issue, both sides of the debate say affecting public opinion is key.

Caylor, of the Kentucky Coal Association, said environmental groups have deep pockets and powerful public relations tools. “A vocal minority and the press” keep the issue alive, while many of the outspoken opponents and the media lack understanding about mining in general, he said. “These people are just against mining, period,” he said.

For Appalachian residents, the issue is not black or white, which is the way both opponents and supporters often frame the debate, said Shepherd. “It’s a gray issue,” she said. “It’s the environment, but it’s also people’s livelihoods. There should be more dialogue, not ‘my way or the highway’.”

Caylor, of the Kentucky Coal Association, said environmental groups have deep pockets and powerful public relations tools. “A vocal minority and the press” keep the issue alive, while many of the outspoken opponents and the media lack understanding about mining in general, he said. “These people are just against mining, period,” he said.

For Appalachian residents, the issue is not black or white, which is the way both opponents and supporters often frame the debate, said Shepherd. “It’s a gray issue,” she said. “It’s the environment, but it’s also people’s livelihoods. There should be more dialogue, not ‘my way or the highway’.”

Bluegrass-area legislator keeps trying to pass law limiting mountaintop-removal mining

By Mary Jo Shafer, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

WINCHESTER, Ky. -- The Kentucky River, which flows through the district of state Rep. Don Pasley of Winchester, has its headwaters in Eastern Kentucky, home of the state’s main coalfield.

Downstream, residents of Central Kentucky are feeling the effects of pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mining, Pasley says, and he has been trying to do something about it.

Pasley believes sediment and other pollutants fouling the river are “directly related to mountaintop removal,” because mine refuse enters streams that flow into the river and Pasley’s district – Clark County and part of Madison County.

Pasley said 750,000 people get their drinking water from the river, including all of Lexington and Frankfort, and all are affected by the pollution. Pasley also says the sedimentation has increased water treatment costs and threatens navigational dams that create pools from which cities draw water.

Pasley twice introduced legislation that would have limited mountaintop removal by banning valley fills — the practice he says is causing the pollution downstream. The fills, in the heads of hollows, are made from rock and dirt blasted and excavated from above.

Pasley’s latest measure, House Bill 385, died this year in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, mainly because the chairman, Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, would not let it have a hearing.

Pasley said Gooch, a fellow Democrat, is “much more sympathetic to the coal companies.” Gooch represents a coal-producing region in Western Kentucky, site of the state’s other coalfield.

If the bill could just get out of committee, Pasley said, it might pass the House. “I think it would be very, very close.”

Twelve co-sponsors signed on to Pasley’s bill. None were from Eastern Kentucky, where it met stiff resistance from lawmakers.

Pasley said it is unlikely that any coalfield legislator will sign on to the legislation.

“It’s a political hot potato for them,” he said. “They see the destruction, but the region is economically dependent on coal mining. The economics are such that they can’t take a stand against it.”

A longtime coalfield lawmaker and former underground miner, Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, right, said the mining industry is already highly regulated and new laws are not needed.

A balance can be struck between care of the environment and mining, and water systems of the state can be protected under existing laws, which require permits and reclamation, she said. “I would hate to see a carte blanche prohibition on mountaintop removal.” Looking at each proposal “case by case is proper.”

Mining provides jobs to residents who want to stay in the region, she said. And that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the environment. “It’s my water, I’m drinking it,” she said. “My family settled here 200 years ago. This is my home.”

Most residents want to protect the land, “but they also want to be able to stay there,” she said. “It’s a conflict, a legitimate one, for those of us who love the mountains. I love the mining industry, but I love the mountains too.”

Current laws provide the correct balance, she said, noting the benefits the industry provides, such as the low electricity rates from power plants fired by Kentucky coal. “When the power rates go up, I hear it, too,” she said. “There’s lots of political layers there.”

Pasley says he won’t give up, but said that in order for any such legislation to pass, public support is key. “You have to get public support at the local level because legislators listen to their constituents, ” he said. Pasley said he hopes for “a tipping point” at which public opinion turns legislative opinion, and said the time is right for environmental legislation.

He said mountaintop removal is already a topic that resonates with his constituents, and he hopes voters in Eastern Kentucky will begin to see likewise. The coal industry is powerful and wealthy and money affects politics, he said, but he is optimistic that the “grassroots can overcome money” in advocating change.

He said advocates should note that there are other ways to mine coal, and create more jobs in the process. “Mountaintop removal is such a small percentage of coal mining in Kentucky, but it has such a devastating impact on the mountains and the environment,” he said.

He also wants more Kentuckians to see the effects of mountaintop removal firsthand, including the mine sites, and hopes it can become a campaign issue. If voters and public opinion were mobilized, he said, that could compel a “dramatic change in politics.”

Mountains ‘good for looking at’ but don’t put food on table, mining advocate says

By Mary Jo Shafer, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

WHITESBURG, Ky. -- Tom “Tick” Lewis knows these hills and the winding roads that weave through them with the sure familiarity of someone born and raised here.

He points out old company towns, active underground mines, coal tipples and rows of tidy houses and neat Main Streets and their history.

This region is his home. (Encarta map)

He doesn’t see anything wrong with strip mining or its mountaintop-removal form, and thinks most local residents see likewise. In the early morning rush at McDonald’s, he pointed to a group of men clustered at a row of tables. All of them agree with him, he said, and they include retired miners, school board members, teachers and other people involved in the civic life of the community.

Lewis worked for decades in the coal industry, at strip mines, as a worker’s compensation arbitrator and as deputy state commissioner, and now in insurance. He is galled by the criticism of mining that comes from outside the mountains.

“It’s our resource and we ought to be able to use it,” he said, noting that people opposed to mountaintop removal still use the cheap electricity it provides -- and saying that much criticism comes from people who have no understanding of coal mining.

Lewis says reclamation is largely successful and he believes that mountaintop removal brings more good than bad to Eastern Kentucky – including flatter land for development.

He drove up to the Raven Rock golf course to illustrate this point. Rolling hills dotted with golfers and golf carts rose into view. He also stopped off at the new Pine Mountain High School and Whitesburg’s new industrial park, all built on former mining sites.

Coal is the engine of Eastern Kentucky’s economy, said Lewis and coal mining provides many residents with “great jobs,” that have “raised the standard of living in the area.”

To make his point, he drives through Jenkins. Tidy homes graced with nice cars, neat yards and gardens cluster in the bottomlands. All this is possible because of the coal industry, he said, adding that the scene contradicts the stereotypical view of impoverished Appalachia.

Lewis says he believes that the people living in these and other hollows in Central Appalachia have a right to mine coal and provide for their families, to use these mountains, these resources, as they see fit.

He said mountains are “good for looking at but that doesn’t put food on your table.”

To see areas disturbed by mining in Central Appalachia, use any Web mapping service to locate Williamsson, W.Va., then select Aerial or Satellite view. The white areas that may appear to be clouds, in a southwest-to-northeast band on the map, are actually surface mines. Not all involve mountaintop-removal mining. For the Web site of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, click here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 08/31/2007