Coal / Mountaintop Removal

Ohio Citizen Action’s Sandy Buchanan hails victory over mountaintop removal coal mining: “Remarkable achievement – there’s more to do”

Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson and Chuck Nelson at the National Canvassers Conference, Columbus, Ohio, August 8, 2009

CLEVELAND — The Obama Administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining, announced by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on April 1, is a big victory for people in our sister Appalachian states and for people around the country who understand that the Appalachian mountains are a national treasure. The new policy, if properly implemented and fully enforced, would block the vast majority of future mountaintop removal permit proposals, and protect water quality from all surface coal mining operations.

This is not a perfect outcome. The new policy will not apply to currently permitted mountaintop removal projects. It is not a legislated ban, and thus could be reversed by a future president. And there is nothing human beings can do to restore the 500 mountains that have been slaughtered.

It is still, however, a remarkable achievement, and one which was difficult to imagine just two years ago.

It happened only because so many dedicated people joined hands, combined their wits, worked hard, and never gave up. The list starts, of course, with the West Virginia leaders: Chuck Nelson, Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe, Bo Webb, and so many others. Great credit goes to the Appalachian organizations: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and many more. And to the courageous people who came to West Virginia to engage in civil disobedience. And to the writers, speakers, performers, and musicians who threw themselves into the fray, among them Jeff Biggers, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Mari-Lynn Evans, Kathy Mattea, and Ashley Judd. And to the national organizations, especially Rainforest Action Network and Sierra Club, that provided key support.

Ohio Citizen Action was happy to help. Our campaign went through six stages in two years: In 2008, we concentrated on gaining pledges from presidential candidates to end the practice. 40,088 letters later, all four major candidates were on record: Obama, McCain, Nader and McKinney. In 2009, our members sent 19,938 letters to Obama’s new U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, reminding her of his stance. In an eleven-week effort, we persuaded Ohio State University President Gordon Gee to step down from the Board of Directors of Massey Energy, a notorious mountaintop removal mining company. Then we turned our attention to bills to ban it and, with 56,872 letters, helped persuade Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy, Steve Driehaus, Marcia Fudge, and Sen. Sherrod Brown to join as co-sponsors. We also helped defeat a plan to build a new AMP coal plant in Meigs County, which could have used 3 million tons of mountaintop removal coal a year. And more recently, we have been working to stop a Baard Energy coal refinery in Columbiana County, a potential market for 9.3 million tons a year of mountaintop removal coal.

Four politicians played central roles. They are, in chronological order, (1) Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who on September 15, 2008, came out strongly against mountaintop removal coal mining, forcing his campaign rival, Sen. Barack Obama, to promptly follow his lead; (2) Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who on March 25, 2009, co-sponsored S. 696, a bill to ban the practice, becoming the first co-sponsor from a state in which mountaintop mining was occurring and the first Republican co-sponsor; (3) Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), whose stunning December 3, 2009, statement on mountaintop coal signaled that coal’s future depended on abandoning mountaintop removal; and (4) President Barack Obama, who on April 1, 2010, lowered the boom on the practice.

President Barack Obama and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV). The West Virginia congressman is the spokesman for mountaintop removal coal companies in Congress.

We have more work to do. We expect a political and legal backlash from the mountaintop removal coal companies. We expect — and encourage — continued legal conflict over currently permitted projects. We’ll need to closely monitor the U.S. EPA to see that it properly implements and fully enforces the new policy. And we will need to continue to push for an outright legislated ban on the practice, so that future presidents cannot reverse what this one has done.

Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director, Ohio Citizen Action