Electricity: At What Cost?
An Oberlin class researches the true cost of America’s cheapest fuel.

By Anne C. Paine
Photos by Stacey Litner ’06

Mountaintop-removal mining involves blasting off the peaks of mountains to expose and mine the coal underneath. In West Virginia, it’s now the dominant mining method used.

The American appetite for electricity is huge. Domestic coal generates half of the electricity supply in the United States, and increasingly larger amounts of that coal are being mined by mountaintop removal (MTR).

MTR—which involves blasting off the peaks of mountains to expose the coal underneath—is a burning environmental issue about which most Americans are unaware. The practice has made headlines in environmental journals, but attention in mainstream publications was limited until recently, when National Geographic devoted a feature-length article to the subject.

In West Virginia, MTR mining was first used on a small scale in the 1960s. But by the 1990s, the increasing size of mining equipment had made the practice more efficient, and it is becoming a dominant method used in the state.

Last fall, 30 politics and environmental studies students in David Orr’s Environmental Policy course undertook a concentrated study of the use of MTR mining in West Virginia by the Massey Energy Company, the largest producer of Central Appalachian coal. “Policy is such an abstraction,” says Orr, director and Dis-tinguished Professor of Environmental Studies. “The idea was to take an urgent issue, one that is central to every environmental policy on the books, and let students see how the policy works and how it doesn’t work.”

Orr invited guest lecturers to campus, activists opposed to MTR mining such as Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices, a grassroots environmental organization, and Jack Spadaro, a federal mine inspector and safety officer for 32 years. Spadaro, who investigated a slurry impoundment collapse in Kentucky in 2000, discovered that Massey Energy had known the site was unstable for 10 years. He was placed on administrative leave when he tried to press charges of criminal negligence.

Other speakers shared personal stories of harassment and intimidation. Larry Gibson, an independent activist who has refused offers by coal companies to sell the land held by his family for generations, has been subjected to gunfire and arson. The land, which includes a family cemetery, is valued at $450 million. Maria Gunnoe, a single mother and activist for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, has lost part of her front yard and the bridge connecting her land to a public highway in flash floods caused by MTR mining.

A major focus of the Oberlin course lay with students’ independent research projects, the results of which will assist Appalachian activists. Students took on the issue from several angles, examining aspects of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act in relation to MTR mining, researching who is legally permitted to challenge the practice in court, and studying media coverage of MTR mining. (See sidebars.)

In support of MTR mining, the coal industry cites the economic importance of mining—which pays $1 billion in wages and accounts for nearly 13 percent of the state’s gross product—to the West Virginia economy. At a July 2004 public relations event in Shepardstown, West Virginia, coal officials touted the rock’s role as a present and future supplier of energy. They also argued that increased coal production could help win the war against terrorism.

Mountaintop removal equipment in Boone, W.V., captured by Stacey Litner ’06.

“Coal keeps the lights on,” said Roger Lilly in the Washington Post. A marketing manager for Walker Machinery Co., a supplier of heavy equipment for mountaintop mines, Lilly adds, “Coal today is a cleaner, greener fuel, and it’s our bridge to the future. In terms of workers, MTR mining is cost-efficient for companies. An enormous dragline machine can replace hundreds of workers, requiring only a dozen or so employees on site.

But MTR mining is brutal to the environment. Forests covering the mountain are clear-cut, and powerful explosives are used to blast away 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintop, exposing the coal seams. Draglines dig out the coal, which is trucked to processing centers to be washed and readied for sale. The resulting toxic slurry is retained in ponds called impoundments, capable of holding billions of gallons but prone to catastrophic failure.

Government studies have documented the devastating ecological effects of MTR mining in Appalachia. Hundreds of peaks have been flattened, and up to 1,000 miles of headwater streams have been buried. Lost are roughly 300,000 acres of some of the world’s best hardwood forest habitat, reclaimed as flat grasslands, shopping centers, or commercial facilities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that as many as 24 species, some already endangered, have been affected by the loss of forest and aquatic habitat.

Trees and animals aren’t the only ones affected. Round-the-clock blasting can take place up to 300 feet from a home, shaking houses, cracking foundations, and exposing residents to nerve-wracking noise pollution. Because of the valley fills, which can be hundreds of feet deep and more than a mile long, residents are prone to flash floods and mudslides during rainstorms. Dust and debris from blasting contribute to air pollution, and local water supplies are often contaminated.

How is all this legal?

Despite the government studies, a seemingly minor change in wording in a federal rule has allowed MTR mining to thrive. The change, known as the Fill Rule and finalized in May 2002, substituted the word fill for waste. The change was a response to lawsuits charging that the coal industry’s practice of dumping mining debris into valleys and streambeds violated the Clean Water Act. President Bill Clinton first proposed the Fill Rule but stopped action on it after enormous public outcry. President Bush revived the rule change in 2001, expanding the definition of fill to include “rock, sand, clay, plastics, construction debris, wood chips [and] overburden from mining.” Thus the practice gained legal protection.

“The Bush administration has been determined to unravel 35 years of consensus on the importance of the environment,” Orr says. “Teaching environmental policy now is kind of like teaching health care in an inner-city hospital emergency room on a Saturday night in July. It’s mostly bad news.”

While students’ research projects got them intellectually involved in the issue of MTR mining, the stories they heard from the guest lecturers—who told of how MTR mining affected them, their families, and their communities—brought the issue to life in a very personal way. Many students were deeply affected by the class, and several joined Orr in a winter-term project to continue research to help local Appalachian activists.

“There’s a kind of ‘learning and labor’ pedagogy in environmental studies,” Orr says. “Not labor on the farm, but labor in terms of research applied to the practical. In teaching environmental studies, we try to bridge the world of ideas and the world of Main Street. We’ll bundle up all the information from this class and really have an impact on an important issue.”

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