Following a tumultuous year for the coal industry, including the disastrous coal-chemical spill that left 300,000 without access to clean water in West Virginia, and increasing layoffs as coal mining continues to decline, a coalition of Appalachian citizen groups are demanding increased action from the Obama administration.
The Alliance for Appalachia is releasing a Grassroots Progress Report that assesses the work the Obama administration has done in the region and provides recommendations for the final two years of Obama’s tenure. The coalition feels it is a critical time for the administration to seriously engage in the extensive health and environmental costs of coal in the region, as well as address the urgent need for economic transition.
In addition to presenting suggested actions for the administration, the report outlines repeated failures by state agencies to enforce the law. This report comes on the heels of accusations from local groups that a Kentucky mining company has violated the Clean Water Act nearly 28,000 times, likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history, while state regulators continue to give only slaps on the wrists. The lack of accountability for rampant violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws are one reason that citizen groups are calling for urgent federal attention to the issue.
The quiet cut-off of funding for a USGS Study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal and continued delayed in rule-making processes, indicate that the administration is ignoring the issue, despite new studies linking mountaintop removal to increased rates of cancer and growing national concerns over climate change and water shortages. Groups want the administration to address serious lapses in regulation, enforcement, and oversight of mountaintop removal mining operations, and to engage in collaborative dialogue around solutions and mitigation for adverse impacts caused by mountaintop removal mining operations, as well as to discuss what’s next for the region.
“The coal industry is never going to be like it was in the 30s. The jobs have been on a decline since the beginning. We need to realistically think of the future of Appalachia, and fix this mess,” said Teri Blanton, a volunteer with The Alliance for Appalachia and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. “We could employ ten times the number of workers just fixing the toxic pollution mountaintop removal has left behind. We need reinvestment in Appalachia – not just clean energy, but cleaning up the messes left behind by dirty energy.”
In addition to planning for an Appalachian future with fewer and fewer coal jobs, the coalition is seeking more permanent protections and concrete commitments for what the agencies can accomplish by the end of 2016. In September, leaders from mountain communities attended an interagency meeting with representatives of the Obama administration. The goal of this meeting was to address this progress of the administration towards promises made in a 2009 memorandum. In June, 2009, the Obama administration created a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among federal agencies responsible for protecting Appalachian communities from the extreme damage of mountaintop removal coal mining. Groups were disappointed with the lack of initiative shown by agency representatives in the five years since the memo was created.
“The meeting we thought we were going to have wasn’t what happened at all. The administration representatives said they wanted to ‘start a dialogue,’ but we thought the dialogue had started years ago in 2009. This meeting should have been the culmination of years of work, not the beginning,” said Davie Ransdell, a former coal reclamation technician who now volunteers with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Alliance for Appalachia.
The grassroots report is one way community groups are following up with meeting attendees. Suggested administrative changes include a Conductivity Rule and strong Selenium Standard from the US Environmental Protection Agency and a strong Stream Protection Rule and Mine Fill Rule from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation Enforcement.
“Now is the time to get these policies on the books so future administrations can have something to work with,” said Ann League of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment.
Mountaintop removal and other coal industry abuses have long compromised the waters of Central Appalachia. Over 2,000 miles of stream have been buried by mountaintop removal alone and mountaintop removal has destroyed 10% of the land in central Appalachia – more than 500 mountains. The severe impacts of mountaintop removal show the urgent need to end this practice as well as to begin building towards reclaiming the land and water for a healthier future.
The Alliance for Appalachia is a coalition of groups across the Central Appalachian region working to end mountaintop removal and other destructive coal technologies, as well as to create a just and sustainable future for Appalachia. Members include Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, Gainesville Loves Mountains, Hands Off Appalachia, Heartwood, Highlander Research and Education Center, Keepers of the Mountains Foundation, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Sierra Club Environmental Justice, The Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, SouthWings and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.