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Big Coal Cleans Up Through Bailouts

New America Media, Commentary//Audio, Jeff Biggers Posted: Oct 22, 2008

With our attention focused on the Wall Street crisis and the presidential election, the George W. Bush administration took an extraordinary step last Friday to give coal companies a couple of departing gifts before the end of this year.

This is the really dirty side of coal we rarely hear about.

AUDIO: New America Now interviews filmmaker David Novak about the myth of "clean coal"and his movie Burning the Future.


Put aside, for a moment, that no presidential candidate can actually tell you when the 100-year-old slogan of "clean coal" can be implemented on a nationwide utility scale, or at what cost, or if the security is proven, and put aside the fact that over 10,000 coal miners have died from black lung disease in the last decade and thousands have been injured or died in accidents, and put side that millions of acres of fertile corn fields and farm land, virgin forests and waterways have been strip mined across the country.

Here's the really dirty part of coal. First, this preface: After a year of record profits, coal operatives will receive nearly $2.8 billion in tax credits in the recent Wall Street bailout.

And last Friday, with all of the banter about "clean coal" drowning out the critics, the Bush administration quietly moved to alter one of the last remaining laws protecting against the wholesale clear-cutting and horrific strip mining practice called mountaintop removal in Appalachia. This is the process of blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the remains into the waterways or valleys -- over 1,600 miles of streams and 470 mountains in central Appalachia have been erased from American maps.

Since 1983, coal companies have had to follow a stream buffer zone rule, which said their mining could not disturb areas within 100 feet of streams. When the Bush administration first proposed to end this stream buffer zone last year, over 40,000 citizens responded their outrage to the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement.

Disregarding this remarkable opposition, the Bush administration has moved the proposed change to the EPA, which now has 30 days to review the change, and must issue a written statement that the new regulations would comply with the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

If this ruling is passed, the Appalachian coal fields, the backbone of our first American frontier -- and the very place that gave birth to abolitionist, labor and civil rights triumphs, Black History Month, literary naturalism and the first Nobel Prize for Literature to an American woman (Pearl Buck), the godmother of muckraking journalism, and a treasury of music -- and the focus of the swing states of this election, will brace itself for the most brutal strip mining campaign in our history.

In November of 1955, only days before Rosa Parks would alter history with her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Nobel Prize winning novelist William Faulkner addressed a group of historians in Memphis. Dealing with the issue of segregation, Faulkner admonished his fellow Southerners to "speak now against the day, when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations, will, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and goodwill, will say: 'Why didn't someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?'"

Faulkner challenged the Southerners who would sit quietly and allow the South to "wreck and ruin itself in less than a hundred years."

It is time for Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, both of whom have signaled their concern with mountaintop removal, to speak now against the day of this subversive change in the strip mining law.

Otherwise, coal will not only be dirty, but devastating.

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, among other books. A version of this piece first appeared on Huffington Post.

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