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Free Appalachia from Mountaintop Mining

New America Media, Commentary, Stephanie Pistello Posted: Dec 12, 2008

Editor's Note: The Bush Administration recently approved a rule that will make it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining operations into nearby streams and valleys. The regulation will apply nationwide, and environmentalists fear it will start a new surge in mountaintop removal surface mining across Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Mountaintop mining is of particular concern to those in Appalachia, where surface mines now outnumber those underground.

Stephanie Pistello is from Appalachia and works with Appalachian Voices, a grassroots organization addressing health and political concerns of those in the region.

There is no nice way to say this. The people of the Appalachian Coalfields are victims of a human rights injustice of alarming proportions at the hands of the coal industry, sanctioned by their own government.

On Dec. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a recommendation from the Bush Administration to eliminate the Stream Buffer Zone Rule, a 1983 Reagan-era regulation that requires coal companies to apply for a permit before mining within 100 feet of a stream. Without this rule, we can expect a rapid expansion of mountaintop removal mining and the disappearance of the primary source of drinking water for the southeast United States.

To date, the U.S. government has allowed the coal industry to flatten over 470 Appalachian mountain peaks, bury roughly 1,600 miles of headwater and intermittent streams and clear-cut over 400,000 acres of forest. In their place, literally billions and billions of gallons of toxic coal waste (including chemicals used to wash the coal so that it burns more cleanly) has been dammed up or injected underground in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.

Appalachia is fast becoming America's largest uninhabitable toxic wasteland. Daily dynamiting adds up to the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb per month. Toxic coal slurry leaches into the local water supply. Inches of blast rock and dust settle on communities each day. How much more can the people of the Appalachian "coalfields" take? These are a strong, hard-working people. They are the descendants of some of our greatest Revolutionary War heroes, civil rights leaders, authors, musicians, scientists and scholars. They fueled America's Industrial Revolution. Its time to do away with mountaintop removal, and let the people of the "coalfields" fuel the inevitable green energy revolution.

In September, I traveled to Abingdon, VA, to attend the first Appalachian Community Economics Conference. During three days, citizens, educators, business owners and students discussed new strategies for breaking the coal-based economy that has been in place for so long. It's not that they want things to change. They understand that things must change if their heritage and way of life is to survive. While they recognize that mining coal has been a way of life for generations, they also recognize that the environment is the basic infrastructure of any community. Without it, no one will survive.

Kayford Mountain, WV, before it was leveled for coal, had more wind-power potential than it's neighbor, Coal River Mountain. Had people been willing to change their idea of what is right and good and just, Raleigh County, home to Kayford Mountain, could be thriving with the development of alternative energy. The alarming rates of cancer and neural toxin disorders among residents would slow or reverse. Trillions of gallons of toxic waste would not be polluting our only temperate rain forests. City dwellers might not be tied to a power grid that we resent but traps us.

Once in office, President-elect Barack Obama will have the power to overturn the recent Stream Buffer Zone Rule Change. There is no question he will be met with great opposition from the coal industry and their allies. We can only hope that the promise of healthy drinking water for U.S. citizens and the preservation of a richly unique cultural heritage are enough to silence that opposition.

President-Elect Obama, the fate of our brothers and sisters in Appalachia is in your hands.

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