WASHINGTON (CN) – Republicans and Democrats joined Thursday in condemning mountaintop coal mining, an environmentally devastating process favored under the Bush administration. Considering legislation that would ban the practice, Maryland’s Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin said, “We must put an end to this mining method.”
Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander agreed as the proposed legislation was considered by the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. “It is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal,” he said.
During mountaintop mining, coal miners blast away surface layers of earth, and typically dump excess rock and dirt into nearby valleys. The practice is mostly carried out in the Appalachian Mountains, largely in West Virginia.
Apart from the destruction of mountaintops, such mining has widespread negative effects on water quality, which was the predominant concern of the hearing.
Nonetheless, such mining yields coal, which fuels roughly half the nation’s electricity.
The procedure has been under attack for several years. In 1998, a federal judge ordered that mining debris could not be dumped into streams, but the appeals court ruled that the case should have been filed in state court.
In 2001, a judge found that mining debris was not allowed to fill streams because the definition of what was allowed to be dumped into streams was unclear. The George W. Bush administration responded by altering the wording of the regulation to allow mining debris to fill waterways.
And in 2004, a federal court determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should issue individual mining permits instead of more general permits, which allowed more oversight.
The future of mountaintop mining is unclear. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that Coeur d’Alene Mines Company, based in Idaho, can legally deposit debris from its Alaska gold mine into a nearby lake, despite concerns that the act will kill the lake’s fish.
But the Obama administration has said that it will change mountaintop mining practices and the Environmental Protection Agency has pledged to revise mining permits more closely.
Audience members could be seen wearing pins that read, “I love mountains,” and a group of 200 people wearing shirts promoting coal had to be routed to an overflow room.
Randy Huffman, the cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, was the only panelist that did not outright condemn the procedure. He agreed that there is a connection between mountaintop mining and water quality, but argued that states are in a better position to regulate mining than the federal government.
“West Virginia and our nation need jobs and we need coal,” he said.
But Maria Gunnoe, representing the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and who lives near a mountaintop mining site, adamantly disagreed that mining gets jobs or that it stimulates the local economy. “There is no economic development,” she argued. “There is no need for development if people can’t live there.”
Gunnoe said the water where she lives has been contaminated, especially after the settling ponds, used to remove mining waste, overflowed and flooded her property.
Gunnoe cited her right to clean water under the Clean Water Act, “and that right is being taken away from us in the state of West Virginia,” she declared. “We can live without energy in West Virginia,” she exclaimed “but we cannot live without good, healthy clean water.”
She said mining brings temporary jobs and temporary energy, “but the destruction is permanent,” she asserted. “Can we really keep flattening mountains to produce energy?” she asked. “We need to think about what we’re doing to our children.”
After her testimony, the group that loves mountains gave Gunnoe a standing ovation.
Cardin, who delivered a stinging opening statement on the method of carbon extraction, said, “The impact of this type of activity is dramatic,” and displayed three posters, each showing a stark contrast between the lush green of an untouched forest and the dusty and flat moonscape of the mine area.
He also cited the 1,700 miles of steam channels that have been “aversely impacted” by mountaintop removal of carbon, often leaving contaminants in the surrounding water supply.
Panel member John Pomponio, a director in the Environmental Protection Agency, argued against mountaintop mining, comparing streams to capillaries in the human body. Losing streams can ultimately devastate the forest, he argued. “We really don’t know what the tipping point is,” he said.
Cardin and Alexander have jointly introduced to Congress the Appalachian Restoration Act, which would ban the practice of mountaintop mining.
“We must put an end to this mining method that has buried more than a thousand miles of streams and created untold threats to some of the most beautiful and ecologically significant regions of our country,” said Cardin.