WASHINGTON (CN) – The practice of lopping off mountain tops to mine coal appears to be on its way out, with Republican and Democratic legislstors roundly condemning the practice Thursday. “It is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal,” said Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander.
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 Maryland Democratic Chairman Benjamin Cardin.
Cardin said, “There are more environmentally and economically sustainable paths,” he said, for extracting coal.”
During mountaintop mining, miners blast away surface layers to access mountain coal, 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 seemed the predominant concern during the hearing.
Nonetheless, such mining yields coal, which fuels roughly half the nation’s electricity.
Audience members could be seen wearing pins that read, “I love mountains,” and a group of 200 people wearing “I ‘heart’ 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.