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Why US Rep. Nick Rahall Is Not the Eco-Hero Many Claim Him to Be

He has overseen, or blatantly overlooked, one of the most egregious environmental and human rights violations in the nation: mountaintop removal.

US Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) is an eco-hero to many on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rahall has been praised for his role in protecting our national forests from reckless timbering, expanding wilderness sites in West Virginia under the Wild Monongahela Act, and protecting the New River Gorge National River. He has been awarded honors from virtually every major environmental organization. In 2004, in bestowing the coveted Ansel Adams Award, the Wilderness Society declared that Rahall "has led the charge on mining law reform, protecting our national monuments from oil and gas drilling, and safeguarding Yellowstoneʼs geysers from geothermal development, just to name three."

All of these laudable accomplishments notwithstanding, one truth remains: Over the past thirty years, beholden to the ruthless demands of outside coal companies in his own district, Rep. Rahall has overseen, or blatantly overlooked, one of the most egregious environmental and human rights violations in the nation: Mountaintop removal.

Under his tenure, Rahall has allowed the destruction of more than 500 mountains -- which would have been protected and cherished in Yellowstone or any other state in the West -- along with 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest, and 1,200 miles of streams through mountaintop removal mining. He has allowed the demise of historic Appalachian communities, and watched the stranglehold of a boom-bust coal industry drastically reduce jobs, depopulate the region, and destroy any hope of a future by relying on strip-mining.

When flooding wrought havoc in several West Virginia coalfield counties last month, Rahall blamed nature itself -- not the reality of mountaintop removal, as Jack Spadaro, the former head of federal mine inspector training noted in a Public News Service interview, pointing to "scientific studies done by teams of scientists, hydrologists and engineers, and they've all shown there is a link between mountaintop-removal mining and flooding."

Since the Wilderness Society conferred its award on Rahall for being "forceful, energetic, and wise in preventing special forceful, energetic, and wise in preventing special interests from exploiting places that Americans hold dear," Rahall has turned his back on the mountains and mountaineers while more than 3.5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives have ripped across the wilderness of his state every day -- -that's over 5 billion pounds of explosives detonated in West Virginia alone since 2004, give or take a few million.

In 1977, as a 20-something freshman US Representative, Rahall made sure one of his first acts in Congress was to drive a loophole through the decade-long work of fellow West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler to ban strip mining. On the 30th anniversary of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Rahall recalled escorting US Rep. Mo Udall, the venerable House Natural Resources Committee Chair, to the southern Appalachian coalfields, where Rahall convinced the Arizona congressman to include a loophole for mountaintop removal operations in the surface mining bill. At a House hearing on the anniversary of SMCRA, Rahall crowed: "And he (Udall) agreed that with flatland at such a premium, that we should not totally abolish the practice of mountaintop mining; but that we should have an exemption, an exemption that would allow for better post-mining uses of that land."

Thirty years later, while Rahall still talks about putting golf courses and shopping centers on flattened ranges for "higher uses," the truth is that less than 3-5 percent of all mountaintop removal sites, according to most studies and estimates, have been returned to any post-mining uses. As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward detailed in a brilliant report in 1998 -- before the unfettered nightmare of the Bush administration mining policies were even unleashed -- most mountaintop mines were left as flattened pasture, at best.

Ward's series of reports can be read here: http://wvgazette.com/static/series/mining/MINE0809.html

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