Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mountaintop Mining, Rebellious Lawyering, and a Hockey Stick

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Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive form of coal mining. Coal mining companies employ it in the Appalachians because the coal seams there are narrow and would not repay the cost of deep mining. Think of a mountain as a series of thin layers. First, of course, is soil and its attendant features: Trees, plants, wildlife, streams—everything that we see when we visit a mountain.

All these things hold no interest for the coal mining company. They are just in the way. The layers underneath the surface are those where coal is found. In mountaintop mining, the mine operators strip off the top layers until they reach the layer of coal, the seam. The operators then strip off the coal, put it in trucks or trains, and ship it to market.

The operators are not done, though. There is more coal down below, so they repeat the process, again and again, until the mountaintop is gone. Also gone are topsoil, trees, streams, and underground water deposits—aquifers--where a home owner might drill a well for drinking water or irrigation. In short, the operators remove everything that is capable of supporting life; they leave only rocks.

People complained about this, of course. Not the local residents, who are all in one way or another dependent on the mine operators. But other people, environmentalists, naturalists, and those interested in the future use of the earth, what is now called sustainability. These people got the federal government to pass laws intended to protect the land. They required that the mine operators replace the rocks where they had been. They also passed the Clean Water Act, which required the streams flowing down from the mountain be clean enough to support aquatic life.

The mine operators have consistently ignored these laws. It is actually impossible to replace the rocks where the were originally. The volume of rocks increase once they are exposed to the air. So the mine operators decided it would be okay to dump the rocks in the stream beds. Neighbors might object, but the mine operators have bought nearly all the property in the mining region, so there are no more neighbors.

Likewise, there is no one who can sue under the Clean Water Act. The former residents are gone. The water is probably grossly polluted, but mine operators will not permit anyone to test it. They test it themselves and file their results with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For years, the EPA has been collecting these reports and filing them without looking at them.

I learned all these facts at the Yale University Rebelaw conference from lawyers who had been suing mine operators for years. These lawyers seemed pessimistic about the future of the mining region. The Appalachians themselves are beautiful. Tourism could provide residents with sustainable income. But wherever coal was mined, the land became useless. The air was dusty, the water was poisonous, aquatic life could not exist where there were once mountain streams. The mine operators could not be stopped because they owned the state governments of West Virginia and Kentucky.

This certainly seemed like a no win scenario to me. I went back to my hotel room depressed about coal, which not only destroys the landscape while it is mined, but also contributes to global warming and air pollution while it is burned.

But my mood turned around after I turned on the tv and saw one of the most extraordinary plays I have ever seen in sports. In the Gold Medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada, Canada led by one goal. Not a very secure lead. The Swedes had a gifted goalie who was turning away shot after shot. Then one of the Canadian players—Sidney Crosby--stole the puck at the Canadian end of the rink. He took off running with no one between him and the goalie. When he arrived at the goal mouth, he passed the puck to his own backhand and dropped it into the goal past the helpless Swedish goalie.

It was a simple play. The puck was traveling at high speed past the goal and then, miraculously, turned and flew into the goal.

I was reminded of this play the next day, when, as I returned home on the train, I read that a federal judge had declared the mining operators in West Virginia were violating the protected species act. Just as the puck had turned abruptly in the hockey game, the future of the Appalachian mountains, with their rills, hollows, and history, had just changed. Now there is a chance to stop the mine operators from flaunting the law and destroying the land.

We should never lose hope in our struggle to save the planet from exploiters and their shills. Everything can change in an instant. And yes, Canada went on to win the Gold Medal in Hockey.

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