Source: Earthfirst! Nov-Dec 2004, Title: “See You in the Mountains: Katuah Earth First! Confronts Mountaintop Removal,” Author: John Conner
Faculty Evaluator: Ervand Peterson, Ph. D.
Student Researcher: Angela Sciortino
Mountaintop removal is a new form of coal mining in which companies dynamite the tops of mountains to collect the coal underneath. Multiple peaks are blown off and dumped onto highland watersheds, destroying entire mountain ranges. More than 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by this practice in West Virginia alone. Mountain top removal endangers and destroys entire communities with massive sediment dams and non-stop explosions.
According to Fred Mooney, an active member of the Mountain Faction of Katuah Earth First!, “MTR is an ecocidal mining practice in which greedy coal companies use millions of pounds of dynamite a day (three million pounds a day in the southwest Virginia alone) to blow up entire mountain ranges in order to extract a small amount of coal.” He goes on to say that “Then as if that wasn’t bad enough, they dump the waste into valleys and riverbeds. The combination of these elements effectively kills everything in the ecosystems.”
Most states are responsible for permitting and regulating mining operations under the Surface Mining Control Act. Now MTR is trying to break into Tennessee, specifically Zeb Mountain in the northeast. Because Tennessee did such a poor job in the ‘70s, the state renounced control, and all mining is now regulated under the federal Office of Surface Mining. This makes Tennessee unique because activists have recourse in the federal courts to stop mountaintop removal.
The coal industry has coined many less menacing names for mountaintop removal, such as cross range mining, surface mining and others. But regardless of the euphemism, MTR remains among the most pernicious forms of mining ever conceived. Blasting mountain tops with dynamite is cheaper than hiring miners who belong to a union. More than 40,000 have been lost to MTR in West Virginia alone.
Ninety-three new coal plants are being planned for construction throughout the U.S. Demand for coal will increase as these new facilities are completed. Oil is starting to run out and there are no concrete plans for a transition to renewable resources such as wind and solar energy. Coal companies therefore will be well-positioned to capitalize on their growing market. Katuah Earth First! (KEF!) is one of several groups resisting MTR.
The coal taken from Zeb Mountain is being burned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and continues to cause environmental damage. KEF! wants to raise awareness and direct attention to the perpetrators-TVA and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM). KEF! emphasized that “the issue of mountain top removal is not just a local one. It is intertwined with many global issues such as corporate domination of communities, the homogenization of local cultures and the over consumption of our wasteful society.”
Four federal agencies that review applications for coal mines have entered an agreement that would give state governments an option that could speed up the process. The Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service and Office of Surface Mining said that the agreement was intended to streamline the procedures companies go through when applying for permits to start surface coal mines, including those that remove entire mountaintops to unearth coal.1
Environmental groups are beginning to challenge these policies in federal district court. The current program allows the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a general permit for a category of activities under the Clean Water Act if they “will cause only minimal adverse environmental effects” according to federal regulation. Coal companies then also must seek individual “authorizations” from the Corps for the projects for which they have received a general permit.2
According to the Bush Administration, the federal judge who blocked the streamline permitting of new mountaintop removal coal mines has overstepped his authority. Lawyers for the Army Corps of Engineers asked a federal appeals court to overturn the July 2004 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin. Industry lawyers criticized Goodwin’s decision as the “latest unwarranted and impermissible dismantling” of mountaintop removal regulations by federal judges in Southern West Virginia.3
Update by John Conner: The destructions of highland watersheds are a crime against the very future. The Appalachian Mountains are some of the most diverse in the world. Areas incredibly rich in biodiversity are being turned into the biological equivalent of parking lots. It is the final solution for 200 million-year-old mountains. Since dynamite is cheaper than people, MTR has broken the back of the mining unions in West Virginia, massive sediment dams threaten to bury entire communities, water tables are destroyed, and wells dry up. It is a form of cultural genocide driving a mountain people from their hills-then destroying the hills themselves.
There has been a direct impact on Marsh Fork Elementary, where a massive sediment dam looms above the elementary school. Over 18 people have been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience trying to protect the children of that school. Additionally, Mountain Justice Summer has begun a campaign modeled on Redwood and Mississippi Summers, where folks from all over North America have come to our region to help us defend our mountains.
When the Martin County coal impoundment burst, it released more than 20 times the waste volume into a community than the Exxon Valdez spill-yet the coal industry successfully suppressed the story. The coal industry is incredibly powerful, and there exists a glass ceiling on how far our stories go. The story of the folks committing civil disobedience for the first time in history in West Virginia to resist Mountain Top Removal was placed on the AP-but virtually no outlets outside of West Virginia picked it up.
People can get more information on this issue at mountainjusticesummer.org.
This site has everything-links, pictures, and state-by-state activities. From there you can sign yourself up for our electronic newsletter and find out what is going on in all the states under attack by Mountain Top Removal.
1. Inside Energy with Federal lands, February 7, 2005,”Environmentalists sue to block process for Ky. Mountaintop mining operations.”
2. Associated Press, February 11, 2005, “Federal agencies will work together to speed up mining permits.”
3. Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), March 22, 2005, Tuesday, “Bush, Industry seek reversal of mining ruling.”