BOB WHITE, W.Va. — With a boost from President Bush, central Appalachia’s mountaintop coal miners are finally embracing the future again, flagging more of this state’s ancient summits for blasting and more of its hollows for burying than in many years.
The industry hasn’t yet reversed more than a decade of sliding output, job losses and environmental lawsuits. But its backers are at least feeling resurgent confidence — which could translate into votes for the president this fall across the region.
Others are more disheartened than ever. Some conservationists and hill dwellers say the energy-hungry Bush administration is encouraging miners to pulverize this old, weathered landscape at a faster clip than ever.
In recent months, Maria Gunnoe has watched in fury as mining equipment chewed at the heights of Island Creek Mountain behind her family homestead in this coal outpost in southern West Virginia’s Boone County. Always bound closely to the land, this settlement was named for a type of quail in its forests.
“I’ve trudged these mountains ever since I was a child,” said Gunnoe in her soft twang. “When you go back here to this strip, the mountain is just gone.”
Triple growth in West Virginia
Many more hilltops could be goners. West Virginia — Appalachia’s mining leader and the No. 2 state after Wyoming — approved 20,579 acres for future strip mining last year. That triples the previous year and christens the most new acreage for stripping since 1989, according to state data supplied under an open records request. Federal regulators approved four times more mining fill — leftover dirt and rock from strip operations — to be dumped in the valleys.
The industry is eager to stir from its doldrums, which even a sympathetic president hasn’t been able to reverse. For the year ending last September, coal output from strip sites sunk by 15 percent across mountaintop-mining country: West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.
Last year, mining authorities say that some forces finally turned in the industry’s favor: a perkier economy with stronger energy demand, as well as spiking prices for competing natural gas.
And President Bush. “With the Bush administration, the floodgates have been opened,” says environmentalist Cindy Rank.
Gunnoe and her brothers used to romp across wooded hillsides behind her simple two-bedroom house. Her family picked forest herbs for homemade medicines. Now, a 300-foot-high pile of waste earth plugs the valley like a giant cork. Green water collects in two settling ponds.
State environmental officials blame the flood on logging. However, federal regulators also say the mine’s waste site was redesigned in 2002 in a way that raises the risk of minor flooding — even though it reduces chances for a major disastrous flood. Officials at mine operator Jupiter Coal Co. did not return phone calls.
While Gunnoe frets, miners tend to embrace Bush — a business-minded Republican and former oilman — as a far more sympathetic friend of the industry than President Clinton. “He wants to create a more favorable regulatory environment, but it’s a huge thing to try to change overnight,” says Brian Patton, a fourth-generation miner who runs a 17,000-acre strip operation outside Hazard, Ky.
Battle over strip mines
For decades, miners have been blasting and scraping away the summits and flanks of these old, rounded mountains to reach the precious coal below. While still dominated by traditional shaft mining, the central Appalachian industry has turned increasingly to stripping, as air pollution rules have put a premium on the low-sulfur, cleaner-burning coal within a few hundred feet of the mountaintops.
Over the past five years, environmentalists have elevated Appalachia’s strip mines into a national battleground because, unlike other forms of mining, these operations often lop off entire mountaintops. Mining companies often gain waivers from rebuilding the slopes. Even when they do reshape the hills, they dump tons of leftover earth into neighboring creeks and valleys.
“You can’t lay it all at the feet of President Bush,” says Earthjustice lobbyist Joan Mulhern. “The harm has been going on for a long time. But what’s different about this administration is the speed at which they are willing to eviscerate environmental protections that stand between the coal companies and the ... mountains.”
Conservationist Susan Lapis, a private pilot, says she is having trouble recognizing sites from the air. On a recent flight, she peeked down over her Cessna’s nose at a barren expanse of dirt and dusty roads on top of Williams Mountain, about 20 miles south of Charleston. Though she knew the strip site well, she says she could barely recognize it on another flyover after six months:
“I thought, ‘I don’t know where I am!’ I checked my GPS. The mountain just gets lower and lower and flatter and flatter. This boy is flat!”
Environmentalists and some mountain people lament the changes in topography, the loss of creeks buried under mining fill, the shifts in wildlife habitat. They rail against dust, floods, and blasting with its vibration and flying boulders. Many demand stricter limits on the valley fills.
But mining, of course, is deeply ingrained in the lives and history of this region. For the industry and its backers, mountaintop mines bring desperately needed local jobs and high-quality homegrown fuel to a nation that still derives half its electricity from coal. And old strip sites are occasionally reclaimed with gratitude for homes, stores, and even golf fairways.
“You can build on it. You can do something with the land,” says Charlie Combs, who operates an earth-scooping dragline at the mine near Hazard, Ky. “The way it was before, it wasn’t worth nothing.”
More often, though, an abandoned site is simply seeded with grass. It is left looking like barren Western prairie that was incongruously transplanted into the rolling carpet of Eastern broadleaf trees. Kentucky has repopulated some of its abandoned strip sites with elk. The permitting rebound augurs more of these desolate patches in the years ahead.
Bush administration actions
Since coming to power, the Bush administration has cultivated the coal industry and recruited its players. The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating whether its deputy director, former coal lobbyist Steven Griles, improperly handled matters involving former energy clients.
Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, says Bush is “morphing Lincoln’s ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people into government of, by, and for the energy industries.”
The Bush team has taken some concrete steps that spur strip mine investment through regulatory help. For one thing, it has reshaped rules to shore up the legal foundation of mountaintop mining, repeatedly challenged in lawsuits. It has moved to water down a buffer-zone rule protecting streams. It has also changed the definition of “fill” to more clearly allow valley dumping of this extra rock and dirt.
White House environmental adviser James Connaughton says the regulations were “clarified and tightened.” He said regulators can now “issue permits that have strict performance requirements and are enforceable in a more timely manner.”
Bush regulators say the law clearly allows mountaintop strip mines to dump their leftover fill in valleys. The only mandate is to reduce its impact, says Michael Robinson, an administrator at the U.S. Office of Surface Mining who has helped shape policy.
Bush’s regulators have also made a start at simplifying the mine-permitting process that the industry views as a galling octopus of state and federal agencies. It can take a dolly to cart around the application papers needed for a single permit.
Adding confusion, much of the region was subject to federal court bans or the threat of such bans on most new valley fill permits beginning in the late 1990s. Finally in January 2003, the last one was struck down on appeal, coinciding with the industry’s rush for permits in West Virginia.
Are most of Appalachia’s mountaintops now bound for dismantling bucket by bucket? Are most of its valley floors going to vanish under mining fill? Probably not.
Even here, much land isn’t promising for mining. Only 5 percent of the mountaintop mining region has ever been mined by any method. Federal regulators project a maximum of 7 percent affected by mountaintop mining during the 20 years ending in 2012.
Geologic and economic forces act as brakes too: thinning reserves and booming competition from coal mined in such places as Wyoming and abroad in Colombia. “The best reserves in the traditional coal mining regions have already been developed,” says Kim Link, a spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, a large company with mountaintop mines.
Also, despite all his support for mining, Bush and his regulators have taken some measures to safeguard the environment too — albeit under pressure from federal courts. In their first year, Bush’s regulators gave the industry permission to cover 15 percent less valley acreage with fill than in the final Clinton year, federal data show.
To open new mines without dumping waste in the valleys, some operations have been forced to pack more excavated earth back into the same site or truck it at greater cost to old, abandoned mines elsewhere.
“The public perception is that the Bush administration is gutting the laws, when in reality we’re under more stringent restrictions than we were three years ago,” gripes Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
But a letter came the other day to Gunnoe’s hollow in Bob White. It was a public notice. It said blasting for a new strip mine would soon start along the ridge on the other side of her land.
“It used to be like having your own piece of heaven up here all by yourself,” she said. “Now it’s hell.”
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