Environment

The 5 Worst Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Let's debunk the five biggest, baddest lies about mountaintop removal coal mining.

Photo Credit: Andrey N Bannov/ Shutterstock.com

There are ethical and committed people working in Congress, both members and staff, but their work is often stifled by clever politicians catering to special interests and major donors. On every environmental issue under the sun, polluters and their allies are prone to misleading the public. Here are the five biggest, baddest lies about mountaintop removal coal mining.

Lie 1: When it comes to mountaintop removal, we need to strike a “balance” between the economy and the environment.

Since arriving in Washington, D.C., six years ago and watching more Congressional hearings than I can count, one of the cliches that gets under my skin the most are the constant cries that we need a balance between the economy and the environment.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) is obnoxiously fond of the phrase. Here are just a few of the numerous times he’s used his favorite talking point:

  • “There’s a balance to be had, the economy and the environment has to work together …” [1]
  •  “I believe we can find a balance between economic viability and environmental stewardship and a dialogue is critical …” [2]
  • “There is a balance to be had between our economy and our environment and West Virginia is leading the way in finding that balance.” [3]
  • “There’s a balance to be found between the environment and the Economy and the EPA has worked very hard to avoid finding that balance.” [4]

The phrase is a lie not only because it’s entirely incorrect, but because the politicians who say it do not actually mean it. What they really mean is “stop regulating the coal industry polluters.” Politicians who advocate for mountaintop removal mining rarely attempt to explain how the devastating practice could possibly be considered a balance between the economy and the environment. That’s because they can’t.

At what point is mountaintop removal mining doing anything to add weight to the environmental side of this “balance?” Is it the deforestation? The destruction of habitat? The demolition of ancient Appalachian mountains? The dumping of mining waste laden with toxic heavy metals into streams?

You don’t need to read the dozens of health studies to know that mountaintop removal coal mining is an environmental catastrophe.

Though a healthy environment is necessary for a healthy economy, Appalachian Voices has always advocated for such a balance by acknowledging the importance of traditional underground coal mining to the region while transitioning to a sustainable, clean energy future. Matt Wasson, our Director of Programs, made our position clear before Congress during a hearing last year.

“I recognize that America needs coal to power our homes, factories and economy. Moreover, we will continue to rely on the hard work and sacrifice of American miners to supply coal for years, perhaps decades, into the future. While demand for coal is in long-term decline due to competition from other energy sources, there is no immediate alternative that can replace the 42 percent of our electricity and 20 percent of our overall energy supply that coal currently provides.

The best way to ensure a reliable supply of coal, as well as to honor the men and women that mine it, is to give agencies the authority and resources they need to ensure coal is mined in a manner that does not destroy the land, water and health of nearby residents and that clearly complies with laws passed by Congress to protect our natural resources.”

Mountaintop removal mining makes a true balance between the economy and the environment impossible. And the practice should have no place in America’s energy future.

Supporters of the devastating practice mislead Americans, and impacted communities most of all, by suggesting that blowing up mountains for coal is beneficial to jobs and the regional economy.

Lie 2: The economy.

The argument is logical, but only if you ignore the actual, well-established and thoroughly understood impacts that mountaintop removal has had throughout the region.Proponents of mountaintop removal mining use a very simple and straightforward logic to justify the practice: jobs are good for the economy, and mountaintop removal mining provides jobs, therefore mountaintop removal mining is good for the economy.

Mountaintop removal equals job removal. Coal companies are always looking for ways to cut costs and make their workers more efficient. In other words, they want to get more coal while using fewer miners. That’s where surface mining comes in. Underground mining in Appalachia requires approximately 50 percent more miners than surface mining to acquire the same amount of coal.

By blowing up mountains, using massive draglines, and dumping the resulting waste into streams and valleys, companies can avoid the increase in costs per ton of coal. That may be good news for coal operators, but it’s bad news for miners.

Over the past half century, coal companies have been successful in increasing production while getting rid of those pesky costs (read: coal miners).

The late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) understood this as well as anyone. Shortly before he passed away Byrd told his colleagues in congress:

“The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.”

It’s important to note that the amount of coal mined in Appalachia is dictated by market demand. If Alpha Natural Resources can sell 10 million tons of coal for a profit, they will mine 10 million tons of coal. If they have to hire more miners to get the job done, they will hire those miners. And if getting the job done requires a traditional underground mine instead of a mountaintop removal mine, they will bite the bullet and mine the coal underground.


The relationship between mining employment and coal production reveals when surface mining became prevalent in Appalachia.

For more than a century, coal mining has served as an economic base in Appalachia, and it has helped shaped the cultural identity the region. After peaking in the 1940s, coal mining employment in Appalachia fell off a cliff, gigantic machines moved in and surface coal mining has maligned the Appalachian landscape and economy ever since.

The Bush administration made it easy for companies to dump mining waste into valleys and streams, and since then, massive mountaintop removal mines have become commonplace, but the destruction of the Appalachian mountains and the streams throughout them has been going on for a long time. At every step, coal companies and their advocates have touted the economic benefits and job creation that they assured us would result from more mining.

This leaves one major question. To quote Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), “where are the jobs?”


This map shows the correlation between poverty and mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia.

Mountaintop removal coal mining is not an economic driver. It’s a dirty way for coal companies to turn a profit without regard for the health and well being of Appalachian communities.

Industry advocates also claim that reclaimed mine sites provide much needed flat land to develop the Appalachian economy. We will discuss the problems with that particular lie on Monday.

3. Lie 3: A candidate opposed to mountaintop removal cannot win a U.S. Senate race in Kentucky or West Virginia.

Despite what political supporters of the coal industry would have us believe, a candidate opposed to mountaintop removal coal mining can, and likely will, represent Kentucky or West Virginia in the U.S. Senate someday.

While it it has not happened yet, the past does not dictate the future. A woman has never been elected to the Senate in either state, but looking ahead to the 2014 elections, it seems likely that three of the four candidates — Natalie Tennant (D-WV), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV), and Alison Lundgren-Grimes (D-KY) — will be women. The primaries won’t happen until next year, but these women are the apparent front runners for their party nominations. It’s a pretty good bet that a woman will represent at least one of the two states in the Senate.

You may be thinking: “It’s about time. After all, more women serve in the Senate now than at any other time in history. But things will really have to change to put someone opposed to mountaintop removal in office.” Not according to a 2011 poll by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, which found that in both Kentucky and West Virginia, voters had an unfavorable view of the mining practice.
 


A 2011 poll of likely voters in Kentucky and West Virginia found that significantly more voters have an unfavorable view of mountaintop removal than those with a favorable view.

 

Earlier this year, the political rags and rumor mill of Washington, D.C., went nuts over the prospect of Ashley Judd, an actress and one of the University of Kentucky’s favorite alumnae, running against Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat. Her biggest obstacle, in the view of many in the media, was that she is vehemently opposed to, outspoken and on-the-record against mountaintop removal mining in eastern Kentucky. Could she possibly win while going up against the coal industry?

After Judd declined to run for the seat, a recording of a McConnell campaign meeting was released in which GOP consultants laid out the attacks that could be most effective in beating Judd. They made it clear that they would want to highlight her opposition to coal-fired power plant pollution and support for cap and trade. Her opposition to mountaintop removal however, not so much:

“I’ve omitted all of her mountaintop removal stuff. It’s a whole separate category. It doesn’t quite test as well.” – GOP Consultant

Mountaintop removal is the ugly face of coal, and politicians generally try to avoid it whenever possible. They know what the polls say, and they know that their constituents do not like their leaders to stand by while their home states are destroyed.

Candidates and current Senators prefer to talk about the nefarious U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Obama’s so-called “war on coal,” but they avoid the term “mountaintop removal.” They want the EPA to issue permits for valley fills, but are not so eager to admit that they support the dumping of mining waste into streams and oppose any efforts to limit the resulting water pollution.

Politicians are trying to carefully walk the line between supporting the coal industry and willfully advocating for the ongoing environmental catastrophe that is mountaintop removal coal mining.

It should not be so difficult to imagine a candidate being successful by opposing the unpopular destruction of the Appalachian mountains. One does not need to oppose coal or coal miners to see that the health impacts of air and water pollution outweigh the need for companies to mine coal in the cheapest way possible. There can be a candidate who understands the need to create change in the region, and also has the ability to communicate that need to the majority of Kentuckians and West Virginians.

An anti-mountaintop removal candidate from a major party may not emerge in 2014, but that is not because one could not win. Such a candidate will take the stage soon though, and we should all take them seriously.

Lie 4: More mountaintop removal coal mining will provide much needed flat, reclaimed land for economic development.

Central Appalachia has been mired in a mono-economy for the greater part of a century. In many counties, coal mining has been the only source of good paying jobs. Mining jobs sustained a livelihood for thousands of families over the years. But when the mining companies leave town, they leave very little behind.

Appalachia needs economic diversification. That, we are meant to believe, is where mountaintop removal comes in.

The mining method has irreversibly turned more than one million acres of Appalachian mountains into flat land, and flat land is more useful for building things like factories or Walmarts. In yesterday’s L.A. Times, West Virginia State Senator Art Kirkendoll called for more mountaintop removal, saying “Once you leave it flat, you have a place where you can diversify the economy with office parks and wind turbines.”

Presumably, Kirkendoll threw in the wind turbines comment to appeal to the environmentally conscious among us, hoping that we’d completely forget that West Virginia’s wind turbines, of which there are hundreds across the state, usually line the top of ridgelines.

One reason that claiming more flat land will lead to economic development is a such an egregious lie is that the vast majority of this reclaimed land sees no economic development whatsoever. In 2010, Appalachian Voices worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on a survey of reclaimed mine sites and discovered that, of the 410 mine surveyed, 366 (89.3%) had no form of verifiable post-mining development, excluding forestry and pasture.

The coal industry will proudly show off the four industrial parks, three golf courses, and one federal prison that currently exist on reclaimed sites as a sign of economic development and diversification. But they would like us to ignore the nearly one million acres of poorly reclaimed mine sites that sit completely unused.

If the region’s economy was truly suffering because of a gigantic economic barrier, otherwise known as the Appalachian Mountains, it would appear the coal industry has done more than their fair share of work in eliminating those barriers. Surely, new businesses will find something to their liking among the one million acres of flattened land they have to choose from, right?

After all, who wouldn’t want to build their new facility here? Or go on a vacation at a mountain resort here?

The coal industry has been leveling the Appalachian Mountains for decades, polluting the air and water, and hiring as few miners as possible to do the job. That is not the path to economic development or diversification. Politicians who say otherwise and parrot industry talking points have little evidence to back up their claims.

Lie 5: Mountaintop removal mining is necessary for our nation’s energy security.

While coal is in perpetual decline, more than one-third of America’s electricity still comes from the fossil fuel. It is on this premise that supporters of mountaintop removal stand when arguing that the practice is necessary for our nation’s energy security. But in order to go from that first point to their conclusion anyone arguing for mountaintop removal has to ignore quite a few facts along the way.

“Energy security,” in this case, is a somewhat vague term. An unrealistic argument indicates that, without mining coal in the U.S., we’ll be without electricity. A more realistic argument states that if we don’t mine coal in the U.S., we’ll have to buy coal from other countries like Russia or China. In either case, the argument is based on a potent concoction of misinformation and fear tactics.

Mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia makes up less than 10 percent of the coal mined in the United States. Given coal’s share of our electricity generation, Appalachian Voices estimates that mountaintop removal coal provides no more than 3.5 percent of the nation’s electricity, and probably a good bit less.

If that amount of fuel were completely eliminated, other forms of electricity – most likely natural gas at this point – could quickly take its place. The lights would stay on. It is also likely that without mountaintop removal mining, coal companies would continue to produce the same amount of coal they do today.

National Mining Association spokesperson Luke Popovich unwittingly helped drive this point home last week by reiterating the fact that mountaintop removal coal only accounts for a small portion of U.S. coal demand while responding to yet another study indicting mountaintop removal.

The amount of coal the industry mines is not dictated by how much they can acquire but by how much they can sell. They have no interest in spending money to mine coal that will just sit in a stockyard. Demand for coal has been decreasing, especially domestically for years, and coal companies have responded by mining less coal. If mountaintop removal were banned, companies would still mine approximately the same amount of coal, coal prices would not see major changes, and there would be no big shipments of Chinese coal.

The U.S. exports up to 20 times the amount of coal that it imports. And exports from mountaintop removal mines have increased in the past few years.

Right now the U.S. does not import much coal at all. Last year, we exported a record amount of coal. And in the first quarter of 2013 the U.S. imported 1.4 million short tons of coal compared to the 31.8 million short tons we exported. In other words, this country exports about 20 times as much as we import.

Destroying the Appalachian mountains to mine coal cheaply has nothing to do with providing energy security to Americans. It has nothing to do with providing jobs, boosting the economy or anything else that is good for Appalachia or the rest of the country. The purpose is, and has always been, to line the pockets of coal executives and shareholders who hunger for increased profits no matter the cost. Politicians who say differently are lying.

 

Thom Kay is a legislative associate at Appalachian Voices.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World