Ending Mountaintop Removal: Obama’s Biggest Accomplishment
I thought it was an April Fool’s joke when I saw the Washington Post headline. But apparently it is not. President Obama’s EPA head Lisa Jackson just announced new guidelines that will effectively end mountaintop removal.
If this follows through and actually ends the horrid practice of blowing off mountaintops and dumping the sludge in neighboring streams and hollows then this is, by far, the most consequential act of this Presidency. Yes, more than health care, Afghanistan, the stimulus, or anything else.
This is permanent.
People here in Appalachia are deeply divided over the issue of mountaintop removal. Those of us from non-coal producing states (or marginal coal producing states) like Tennessee almost universally loathe the practice. Just this week our Republican dominated legislature came very close to reporting out of committee a bill to ban the practice in the state. Sadly, a soon-to-be-retiring Rep. from my home town scuttled the bill for now. But with Republicans like Lamar Alexander (also from my home town) supporting such a ban it’s quite apparent that the practice has few public friends here.
But in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, where mountaintop removal is a far more widely practiced means of extracting coal, the politics are far more complicated and impassioned. Coal mining is the only source of employment in many communities in Eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. And while there are still many underground and limited surface mines, the practice of mountaintop removal has broadened in recent decades. Scuffles between “Friends of Coal” and those opposed to the destruction of the mountains have often turned violence, reprising labor struggles of earlier generations. Of course, few of these miners today are unionized and the labor force is a tiny fraction of its former size.
I discovered this ambivalence first hand when I took my Appalachian History class to the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, KY two years ago. The message of the tour guide there was: unions used to be good but are now just a violent nuisance; and mountaintop removal is bad. A drive over Black Mountain from Benham-Lynch (once the largest coal company town in the world) to Big Stone Gap, Virginia revealed the reality of mountaintop removal in all its horrors. I am planning to take my students on a similar trip next week so they can see what the crater-like mines look like. It’s actually an emotionally disturbing process – especially for those who love the green beauty of the Appalachian Mountains.
The health and environmental risks of mountaintop removal are legion and well-known. Though I am less skeptical about carbon sequestration than most environmentalists – and less fanatic on the climate change issue in general – I am fervently on the side of environmentalists when it comes to mountaintop removal.
If this process really is coming to an end after 40 ignominious years that President Obama will have already done something more consequential and beneficial than any President in memory. He will have saved Appalachia itself for posterity.