Note: A slightly edited version of this article was published as the front page showcase piece on The Daily Yonder in mid-July 2010. The story is one of a series of articles I have written on the coal industry and mountaintop removal in my role as lead writer and co-editor of the The Coal War. All images below are by Chad A. Stevens, Director of The Coal War.
by Robert Browman
Lorelei Scarbro spends each day on her ancestral land in an Appalachian hollow living in fear that a coal company will soon destroy the mountain way of life she holds dear. Scarbro, a 54-year-old grandmother and coal-miner’s widow, lives in a house built by her late husband in the shadow of one of the last untouched mountains in the area, Coal River Mountain. Massey Energy is poised to blast it to smithereens.
Massey holds permits to surface mine Coal River Mountain using mountaintop removal, a process where up to 800 feet of a mountain is blown up so coal in the newly exposed seams can be scraped out with heavy machinery. Debris from the blast is then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams, often causing severe environmental and health issues for surrounding communities. The non-profit group Appalachian Voices estimates that 1.2 million acres of Appalachian forest has already been destroyed by surface mining.
Scarbro, who was born and raised in Coal River Valley, has witnessed the devastation caused by mountaintop removal first hand. “I have seen communities – “literally communities – destroyed, all for a greater profit margin for the coal companies.” she said. “If we are not successful in saving this mountain, then everything I have, and everything all my neighbors have, will be destroyed.”
Scarbro has been fighting for years to save Coal River Mountain from Massey’s bulldozers and dynamite. She is a currently trying to stop the blasting by seeking adoption of an alternative, sustainable-energy plan, The Coal River Wind Farm. The solution would fundamentally change the coal-based economy in West Virginia by halting mountaintop removal in favor of sustainable energy jobs, while allowing for continued traditional, subterranean coal mining.
Already, the wind farm has faced stiff opposition from West Virginia’s power brokers. Politics in the state has long been entwined with the coal industry.
Scarbro believes that by engaging in mountaintop removal, the coal companies are not acting in the best interest of the people of her state. “They have no heart, they have no respect for the living or the dead,” she said. “It’s almost like they don’t see us as living breathing human beings, we’re just to be erased out of their path. It needs to stop.”
Recent moves by the federal government suggest they want it to stop too. On April 1, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency announced stricter regulations intended to limit surface mining in Appalachia. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, said, “Coal communities should not have to sacrifice their environment, or their health, or their economic future to mountaintop mining.”
The announcement gave new hope to opponents of the environmentally destructive process. “The spirit and ethic of the EPA’s guidance was that they were curtailing mountaintop removal,” Rainforest Action Network’s Nell Greenberg said.
Scarbro interpreted the EPA’s new rules as the government’s first step toward abolishing mountaintop removal altogether. “This is the beginning of the end for valley fills and mountaintop removal. We are not leaving our mountains,” she told the Huffington Post.
Less than two month’s later, the government shattered those hopes.
In late June, the agency recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers approve a permit sought by the coal company Coal-Mac for the Pine Creek Surface Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. The proposed mine will level 760 mountain acres, fill three valleys, and destroy more than two miles of streams.
Opponents of mountaintop removal see this action as a clear reversal of the position the EPA took in April. Some see it as yet another example of the federal government pandering to the coal industry at the expense of the environment. “We have seen mountaintop removal permits simply rubber stamped in the past,” Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network said. “This feels like more of the same.”
But to Scarbro, the EPA’s decision is not just about acres, valleys and streams. To her, it is a betrayal of a promise made directly to the people of Appalachia. She expressed her disappointment to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson in a letter excerpted here:
I have been involved in the battle to stop, not regulate, mountaintop removal coal mining since the coal mine moved in next door to my home at the base of Coal River Mountain in Rock Creek, WV. I watched my husband die of black lung after 35 years as an underground union coal miner. I watch as people I love get sicker each day from contaminated water after raising their family in Prenter Hollow, WV.
I have left my very peaceful home 3 miles up in Rock Creek and traveled to DC many times in the past 2 years to help the powers that be to really see the face of coal. I hope that by telling the people on Capitol Hill how the decisions they make affect the lives of the people in the mountain communities they might begin to see us as valuable. Too often we are treated like collateral damage or just the price of doing business.
I was on the call on April 1 when you released the guidance for conductivity levels and I was very excited when I heard you say, “You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.” The release of this guidance and your words brought hope to many people that long ago lost it. I have been very thankful for all of the steps this EPA has taken to improve life in the mountain communities of Appalachia, but I was heartbroken when I saw the decision on Pine Creek. Although I live about 1 ½ hours from this area I stand with the citizens there and I fear that this is just the beginning of many more permit releases.
We believed you when you spoke about “zeroing out valley fills”. Where I am from, sometimes all you have is your word. People here have historically made life altering decisions on nothing more than a handshake and their word. I am a 54 year old widow of a coal miner and the most important thing to me is clean drinking water for my grandchildren. I don’t believe that is possible if we continue to destroy and cover head water streams in Appalachia. Once again, I have lost hope. Please don’t let this be the final word on Pine Creek Surface Mine.
With the federal government sending mixed signals, and pressure building from both activists and the coal industry, the future of mountaintop removal remains uncertain. What remains certain is that Lorelei Scarbro will continue to fight for her home, for the people of Appalachia and for their unique way of life.