Mountain top removal mining (MTR) has become a growing trend in coal mining. Less labor-intensive than traditional underground mining, MTR is especially commonplace in the Appalachian region. Critics charge that it is a destructive process that benefits a few corporations at the expense of local communities and the surrounding land when left behind. Supporters of the MTR process counter that the results are not so bad; once reclaimed, the process leaves behind flat land that is in much demand, and new growth will eventually host wildlife, including game animals. Residents who live near these mining operations probably have plenty to say about the issue, much like their western US cousins who live near gas fracking sites. What is not in dispute is that coal-fired plants still provide about half of the electricity consumed in the US, and that demand will not recede anytime soon.
Conflict between the coal industry and those wishing to increase its regulation is ramping up. Bank of America stepped into the fray by announcing that it would no longer lend to companies that extract coal using the MTR process. Now the National Mining Association is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers. The NMA charges that both agencies are illegally denying member companies mining permits in Appalachia.
The NMA has become frustrated with the EPA’s delay of over 200 permits, an action that has accelerated since the Obama Administration took office last year. The EPA calls its move “enhanced review,” while mining companies counter that such action is a job killer and amounts to unlawful obstruction of business activities. What the mining companies do not deny is that one result of MTR is debris clogging in region’s rivers and streams. When a mountain is mowed down to reveal coal deposits, all that dirt has got to go somewhere.
We are witnessing is another economics vs. the environment debate: solutions, anyone?
The MTR debate is dominant in West Virginia politics, which often pits citizens demanding jobs against critics who find the practice ghastly. The controversy offers an interesting twist in the Senate race for the deceased Robert Byrd’s old US Senate seat: popular Governor Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat who is an outspoken supporter of the coal industry, is favored to win this November, but the race has attracted another challenger. Former US Representative Ken Hechler, who at 95 years young was born three years before Robert Byrd, has thrown his hat into the ring. A former aide to President Harry Truman (no that is not a typo) who served in the house from 1959 to 1977, Hecher is not expected to win, but is running solely to oppose the practice of mountain top removal mining. He was among 30 arrested last year for protesting MTR. The changes are high that protests and rhetoric will increase as this conflict heats up.