Mountain top removal foes celebrate Va. bill prohibiting waste dumping in streams

Associated Press • Feb 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining gathered in Virginia and Kentucky on Thursday in support of bills that would ban coal companies from dumping the rock and rubble they blast off the tops of mountains into nearby streams.

In Virginia, opponents were outnumbered by coal miners and industry supporters, many of whom drove up to six hours to attend a public hearing on a bill they said would put them out of work.

It was the first time legislation was introduced to curb surface mining in Virginia. Similar efforts in Kentucky have failed the last five years. No action was taken on the bills.

Supporters of the bills said mountaintop mining has scarred vast swaths of Appalachia and ruined waterways. Mining supporters say the bills would eliminate thousands of jobs and devastate areas of the states that already are the most economically depressed.

Matt Wasson with Appalachian Voices, an environmental group opposed to mountaintop removal mining, showed aerial pictures of decapitated mountains in Wise County, Va., where he said an area comparable to Washington, D.C., could fit into areas affected by surface mines.

"The mountains that have been lost can never be brought back," he said. "The streams will be polluted for a long time."

Wasson was one of more than 100 supporters to travel to Virginia's Capitol for the hearing. A planned rally was called off when more than 200 coal supporters, most wearing black "Yes Coal, Yes Jobs" T-shirts crowded outside the room where the hearing was to be held.

In Kentucky, some 600 supporters of the bill braved temperatures in the mid-20s to march through Frankfort waving banners and placards calling for an end to mountaintop removal.

"It's one of the worst things I have ever seen," said Viktoria Safariah, a native of Armenia and a Transylvania University sophomore who waved a sign that read: "Topless mountains are obscene."

In mountaintop removal mining, forests are cleared and rock is blasted apart to get to coal buried underneath. The leftover dirt, rock and rubble are dumped into nearby valleys, sometimes covering streams.

The practice has for years been a source of contention between coal operators, who say it is the most effective way to get at the coal, and environmentalists, who say it has irreversibly harmed the mountains and streams.

Mountaintop removal mining is widely used in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, producing 130 million tons of coal annually.

Throughout Appalachia, environmentalists have been fighting to stop mountaintop removal, holding protests, filing lawsuits against federal agencies and coal companies, pushing for legislation at the state and federal level to ban the practice, and more recently through civil disobedience.

"Nonviolent civil disobedience is not the wrong thing to do," said Mickey McCoy, a retired teacher from Inez, Ky., and a member of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. "We must stand ready to lay our bodies down."

Opponents say mountaintop removal provides jobs.

At least 1,600 of Virginia's 4,600 mining jobs are in surface mines. Tommy Hudson of the Virginia Coal Association said the job losses would be "catastrophic."

"The coal industry would be devastated. There would be massive hemorrhaging of other jobs, of non-coal jobs, and economic development efforts would be paralyzed," he said.

Hudson said the bill was not about saving streams, but was intended to put the coal industry out of business and to raise money for environmental groups.

"They need controversy and a crisis and a cause to keep their revenue stream flowing," Hudson said. "Perhaps that's what they mean when they call this a 'stream saver' bill."

Supporters showed pictures of airports, industrial parks, prisons, schools and other commercial and residential development on reclaimed mountaintop removal mine sites.

Billy Campbell, a mining company consultant from Buchanan County, Va., compared mining opponents' pictures of barren hilltops where mining was under way to photos of an open-heart surgery, with the patient's ribs cracked and the doctor's hands in his chest.

"We understand that it is the end result that is the most important," he said.

Strother Smith, an Abingdon, Va., attorney, said the proposal violated Virginia's constitution because it targeted one specific enterprise and not the general populace.

"If you think it needs to pass, make it a constitutional amendment and put it on the ballot. I have no problem at all taking this before the Supreme Court," Smith said.

In Kentucky, country music singer Kathy Mattea called for a dialogue between people on both sides of the divisive issue.

Mattea said mountaintop removal leads to "terrible environmental destruction," but she said the miners who make their livings in the coalfields "can't be tossed away."

"We are not enemies," she said. "We are brothers and sisters in conflict."

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