Attracting Media Attention
Why does the media neglect MTR mining? Kate Rankin and Elisa Saltet analyzed media coverage (“or lack of it,” says Saltet), and interviewed writers who’ve published stories in national publications. “Erik Reece, who’s written for Harper’s and Orion, said he believed the lack of coverage was due to the fact that not enough people have died, and it’s hard to maintain public interest unless there are scary statistics,” says Saltet, a third-year, double-degree student majoring in cello performance and environmental studies. She cited coverage of a slurry impoundment failure in Martin County, Kentucky, in 2000, which released 250 million gallons of slurry and wastewater, more than 20 times the amount of oil released in the Exxon Valdez spill. “The story only got about a week of coverage, primarily in Kentucky,” says Rankin, a senior majoring in environmental studies and Japanese. The pair notes that MTR was listed among the top 10 overlooked stories in 2006 by Project Censored Media at Sonoma State University. “MTR is an issue of climate change, human rights, endangered species, and environmental justice,” Saltet says.

Core drillings are taken to determine the required depth of blasting.

Forcing Legal Compliance
Coal slurry contains many toxic heavy metals, including lead, mercury, chromium, and arsenic. Robin Hok, a fifth-year, double-degree student majoring in vocal performance and environmental studies, researched toxins legislation and recommended three possible legal tactics to oppose MTR mining. The first would have slurry ponds—which contain between 1 billion and 3 billion gallons—designated as EPA Superfund sites (sites with uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste). The second possibility would charge companies with failure to comply with reclamation requirements. “Companies say they’ll restore the slurry ponds once they dry, but in the West Virginia climate, how long will it take for one billion gallons to dry?” she asks. The third tactic involves legislation requiring companies to report point-source releases above a certain level to the EPA. “Levels for some chemicals are very small. For example, only a pound of lead has to be reported. The coal companies have no idea how much lead is in their slurry ponds. If we could come up with an accurate way to calculate that amount, we could call the companies on the quantity of their toxic discharge.”

Property Law Ineffective
In the United States, where individual rights are highly prized, it would make sense that property law would protect private landowners’ rights, and that protection of private property would be a legal argument to oppose MTR mining. After environmental studies major Jon Beckhardt ’06 reviewed relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases and read several texts on property law, he learned the exact opposite was true.

“Since the beginning of American history, we’ve put the common good ahead of the private good in property law,” he says. “For example, in early New England there were no trespassing laws because everyone’s land was viewed as open for hunting. More often than not, the federal government gives state and local jurisdictions the power to regulate their land. Only in situations where virtually all the value is taken from the land do they intervene.” His conclusion—that the way property law is interpreted and applied in this country makes it an ineffective tool for opposing MTR mining—disappointed him. “I had imagined that the devaluation of Larry Gibson’s land was just not being understood. So it was a hard conclusion to reach,” he says.