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September 7, 2007

In August 2007, The Office of Surface Mining in the Interior Department issued a draft revision to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Surface mining accounts for an increasing share of the coal mined in the United States. The proposed changes relate to the practice of "mountaintop mining" which although cheaper and safer than underground mining, has come under fire from environmentalists and coal-producing area residents.

In the mountaintop process the top of the mountain or the "overburden" is broken up and removed by blasting in order to reach coal seams. Once the rock surrounding the coal is blasted off, in what is known in the industry as "shoot and shove," the excess rock and earth is dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below, often burying the streams that run through them. This dumping is primarily where residents and environmentalists have come into conflict with recent rule changes. (View a detailed description of the process.)

In late 2006, MOYERS ON AMERICA: IS GOD GREEN? reported on some Evangelical Christians who were turning to their faith to fight the effects of mountaintop mining on their communities. Judy Bonds, West Virginia resident and member of Christians for the Mountains queried:

There are three million pounds of explosives used a day just in West Virginia to blow the tops off these mountains. Three million pounds a day...To knock fly rock everywhere, to send silica and coal dust and rock dust and fly rock in our homes. I wonder which one of these mountains do you think God will come down here and blow up? Which one of these hollers do you think Jesus would store waste in? That's a simple question. That's all you have to ask.

Critics contend that the new rule change is another step in an effort to undercut the environmental safeguards of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the landmark Clean Water Act and give "mountaintop mining" interests greater and greater leeway.

Rule Changes and Comments

  • 2002: The Environmental Protection Agency rewrote clean water regulations to add mine waste to the list of materials that can be used to fill in streams for development and other purposes.

  • 2003: The EPA released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessing the environmental and social impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. The study confirmed that mountaintop removal coal mining has affected forest areas and streams in negative ways, and identified proposed actions that government agencies might take to minimize the adverse effects of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills. Despite these findings, the Bush administration called for an easing of existing environmental restrictions on this mining method. The "Preferred" Action Alternative offered in the report recommends that "The agencies would developed enhanced coordination of regulatory actions, while maintaining independent review and decision making by each agency."

  • 2004: Rule changes are proposed which reduce the surface mining law's buffer zone rule that prohibited mining activities within 100 feet of larger streams. New guidelines would required companies to respect the buffer zone "to the extent practicable."

  • 2006: The proposed new rule codifies the 2004 buffer zone proposals and, according to THE NEW YORK TIMES, "seems specifically to authorize the disposal of 'excess spoil fills,' a k a mine waste, in hollows and streams."

    THE NEW YORK TIMES in reporting the proposed changes stated: "The Office of Surface Mining in the Interior Department drafted the rule, which will be subject to a 60-day comment period and could be revised, although officials indicated that it was not likely to be changed substantially." On it's Web site The Office of Surface Mining posted an FAQ about the new rulings and responding directly to the TIMES, saying "This statement is not accurate."

    >You can read the FAQ, and comment on the proposed rule changes here:

  • Related Media:
    MOYERS ON AMERICA: IS GOD GREEN? Inside the debate among Conservative Evangelical Christians over handling of the environment.

    The Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a group of young adults from urban DC, works to reclaim a dying neighborhood by providing leadership tools to disadvantaged youth while cleaning up the environment.
    References and Reading:
    Mountaintop Mining

    "Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change"
    Joby Warrick's August 2004 series for THE WASHINGTON POST on the changes wrought by the 2002 fill rule. The series includes a map of West Virginia mountaintop mining sites and a detailed description of the process. Warrick's series also traces the influence of controversial former Interior Official, and former mining industry lobbyist, Stephen J. Griles in the efforts to revise the mining rules. Griles has been sentenced to 10 months after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the Abramoff lobbying probe.

    Appalachian Voices: Mountaintop Removal
    A non-profit, environmental organization, Appalachian Voices' Web site provides information on the impact of Mountaintop coal mining practices on the environment and the community. Other features include a photo gallery of Mountaintop removal sites and a scholarly essay on mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachian Mountains. Related links are also included.

    Arch Coal, Inc.
    Arch Coal, Inc. is the nation's second largest coal producer and uses mountaintop mining methods in West Virginia. Its Web site supplies information on the company, the coal industry, and the company's financial situation for investors.

    CHARLESTON GAZETTE - Mountaintop Mining Series
    Since early 1998, THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE and SUNDAY GAZETTE-MAIL have provided comprehensive coverage of the mountaintop mining controversy. A series of investigative articles by reporter Ken Ward Jr. from 1998 to date are collected here. They document the mining process, the legal challenges to mountaintop mining, the West Virginia mining industry and mountaintop mining's effect on those who live below. Editorials by Dan Radmacher have called for reforms in mountaintop mining practices.

    Christians for the Mountains
    West Virginia-based group featured in the BILL MOYERS JOURNAL report. "Christians For The Mountains is a network of persons committed to advocating that Christians and their churches recognize their God-given responsibility to live compatibly and sustainably upon this earth God has created." The group has just released a DVD titled MOUNTAIN MOURNING.

    GristMill: Mountaintop Removal: MTR From the Sky
    Gabriel Pacyniak and Katherine Chandler are traveling throughout southern West Virginia to report on mountaintop removal mining (MTR). They'll be visiting coalfields with abandoned and "reclaimed" MTR mines, and talking with residents, activists, miners, mine company officials, local reporters, and politicians.

    "Interior Department Plans to Change Strip Mining Rule"
    MSNBC, August 23, 2007. "Interior Dept. says it will clear up confusion; activists see it as giveaway."

    Massey Energy Company
    A low-cost producer of Appalachian coal, Massey Energy Company's Web site features detailed information about the company's operations, coal sales, industry issues, and investor relations.

    National Mining Association
    The NMA's Web site provides the latest news and information on the mining industry, its technology, relevant statistics, and key legislative and regulatory policies.

    Office of Surface Mining, Department of the Interior
    Department of Interior office responsible for overseeing mountaintop mining guidelines. The Web site is hosting the 60-day comment period on rule changes. The Office has also published an extensive FAQ addressing questions.

    OVEC - Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
    OVEC is an environmental group focusing on Mountaintop removal / valley fill strip mining, coal waste impoundments, energy policy, coal-fired power plant pollution, and a host of other coal-related issues in the Ohio Valley area. The site contains news archives, photos, and background information about mining and the environment.

    "Rule to Expand Mountaintop Mining," THE NEW YORK TIMES, John M. Broder, August 23, 2007

    West Virginia Coal Association (WVCA)
    A non-profit trade association, WVCA's Web site provides information on the coal industry and associated publications.

    Published September 6, 2007

    Also This Week:

    Bill Moyers talks with former Congressman Mickey Edwards and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero about revisions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

    Former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, Jack L. Goldsmith, discusses the Administration's expanded view of executive power.

    As proposed new rules may allow coal companies to expand mountain top removal mining, Bill Moyers Journal reports on local evangelical Christians who are turning to their faith to help save the earth.
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