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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 10:10 pm

Bush gives lump of coal to Appalachia

Largely hidden from most Americans, a highly destructive form of coal mining called mountaintop removal has devastated 1 million acres in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

Let’s say that you’re CEO of a coal corporation, and you want to get at the deposits of black gold deep inside the beautiful, verdant mountains of Appalachia. You have a choice.

You could adopt modern methods that combine industrial ingenuity and environmental finesse to extract the coal. Or, what the hey, why not just ram tons of explosives into the terra firma, blow up the entire top third of those peaks, bulldoze the resulting rubble down the mountainsides into the streams below, then — voila! — simply scoop out the exposed coal? Yes, mountain decapitation is brutish and nasty, but, wow, it’s so much more profitable for your corporation. What’s a CEO to do?

Blowing the tops off mountains might give you pause, but it’s just another day’s work for America’s coal barons, who do not hesitate to grab an extra dime in profit by resorting to what they euphemistically call “mountaintop removal.”

First, they scalp the mountaintops. All the trees and brush are clear-cut, bulldozed into huge piles and burned as trash. Next, they scrape the forest floor down to the bedrock, shoving all plant life, organisms and topsoil into piles.

Then come the fireworks. Holes are drilled into the mountain core and filled with explosives that have 10 times the force that Tim McVeigh used to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City. This explodes the top third of the mountains into rubble.

Finally, all those tons of rock, soil and so forth (which are dubbed “spoil” by the industry) must be removed so the companies can get to the coal. Do they truck it away? Good heavens, no! That would cost money, making mountaintop removal unprofitable. Instead, they merely shove the spoil down into the valleys below, burying streams, animals, habitat and anything (or anyone) else in the way.

Some 1,600 miles of Appalachian streams have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal, and we’ll lose another 100 more miles of streams each year the practice

Shouldn’t such rank profiteering be against the law, you ask? It is. Since 1983, the Clean Water Act has banned coal operators from dumping their mountaintop spoil within 100 feet of streams. Good rule. Unfortunately, Big Coal’s political clout has kept regulators from enforcing it.

In recent years, though, spunky grassroots groups in Appalachia have won lawsuits to require enforcement. This has led the Bush administration to rush into action — not to protect the mountains and the people who live there, but to protect the coal corporations.

Now, just in time for the holidays, Bush has literally put lumps of coal in the Christmas stockings of folks in Appalachia. Claiming that the 100-foot buffer requirement needed “clarification,” Bush and Co. issued a new rule this month that is a classic semantic sham. It declares that dumping spoil near streams continues to be prohibited —unless a corporation shows it has a need to dump in the stream.

This is a license to “shoot and shove,” as the industry so delicately terms its mountaintop-removal process. The rule change was announced by the head of Bush’s council on environmental quality, James Connaughton. Guess who he is. Yes, a former lobbyist for the coal giants.

Jim Hightower is a national radio
commentator, columnist and author.

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