DEATH AND DEVASTATION - Drive Coalfield Residents To DC


Submitted by Vivian Stockman

NITRO, W.Va.óResidents from the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and other conservation-minded citizens intend to speak out against valley fills and other aspects of mountaintop removal strip mining in Washington, DC this Wednesday.

In mountaintop removal coal companies blast off the tops of mountains to mine thin seams of coal. Rubble from the former mountaintops is pushed into "valley fills," burying streams in nearby valleys under hundreds of millions of tons of mining waste, In West Virginia alone, over 1,000 miles of streams have been obliterated by valley fills.

"We want lawmakers to hear first-hand accounts of life in the coalfields, and we want to invite them to come witness for themselves the devastation associated with mountaintop removal," said Dave Cooper, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), a West Virginia environmental group organizing the bus trip.

Nearly 50 people are boarding a DC-bound bus in Nitro early Tuesday afternoon. Others are car-pooling to meet the group in the nation's capitol Wednesday, when the residents and activists have a full day of meetings scheduled with lawmakers from several states.

Late in April, a coalition of state, regional and national organizations working to stop mountaintop removal had decided to bring coalfield residents to the nation's capital. The trip took on new urgency earlier this month after a flurry of events put West Virginia and Kentucky in the national spotlight.

"We've really been through the wringer, worse than usual, these last few weeks. First, the floods slam us again. People die again. They can't tell me mountaintop removal doesn't make floods worse," said Kenny Stewart, a resident of Pettus, in Raleigh County, W.Va., who is making the trip to DC.

"Then, the very next day, President Bush makes valley fills legal. I don't know what we'd do if it weren't for Judge Haden. Someone has got to make these coal companies accountable for their actions," Stewart said.

On May 2, devastating floods swept the region, killing nine people in southern West Virginia, and leaving hundreds homeless and destroying roads, schools and businesses. The same area had been hit hard by flooding in summer of 2001. Many residents believe that mountaintop removal coal mining and virtually unregulated timbering have worsened regional flooding. They say denuded forests and altered water-flow patterns disrupt the landscape's natural water-absorbing capabilities.

On May 3, the Bush Administration announced plans to change a rule to legalize otherwise illegal valley fills at mountaintop removal operations. Newspaper editorials and environmentalists nationwide railed against the rule change, saying it would jeopardize waterways across the country and would result in the most drastic weakening of the federal Clean Water Act since that law was passed 30 years ago.

Five days later, on May 8, U.S. District Court Judge Charles H. Haden II ruled that valley fills are indeed illegal and also said the rule change "must fail," since only Congress can change federal laws. Coal companies and government regulators are expected to appeal Haden's decision.

"We're coming to DC to ask for help in stopping the annihilation of our streams and hills," said Patty Wallace of Louisa, Ky., a member of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC). Her group filed the lawsuit that brought about Judge Haden's decision. KFTC sued over a coal company's permit application to create 27 valley fills and bury 6.3 miles of streams for one of its mountaintop removal operations.

During their visit, the groups will show legislators and the press a newly created map of McDowell Co. W.Va., an area devastated by the latest flooding. The map shows strip mines, including mountaintop removal sites, valley fills and coal waste dams in the county. During the flooding, a coal waste dam spilled tens of millions of gallons of coal slurry -- which contains water, coal waste, heavy metals and chemicals used in processing coal for market -- into the Tug Fork River, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

"This map represents cutting-edge work for a state environmental group," Cooper said. "West Virginians Rick Eades and Josh Weese compiled the map for OVEC using DEP's own data and Arc View software technology. The maps reveal that strip mine boundaries cover over 18,000 acres of McDowell County. That's 4.6 percent of the total permitted strip mine boundaries for the entire state. Seeing the map, it's hard not to conclude that scalping that many mountains and filling that many valleys won't worsen flooding."

"This mountaintop removal has caused a lot of flooding when we have rains," said Jim Bilek of Mont Coal in Raleigh Co. W.Va. "It's polluting our streams. We're going to DC to ask the politicians to stop it."

Judy Bonds, an organizer with the Coal River Mountain Watch, based in Whitesville, W.Va., hopes she can somehow get a copy of the map to President Bush.

"Bush needs to see what is really happening here in West Virginia," Bonds said. "He came here in January to meet with people who make mountaintop removal machinery. I challenge him to come meet the people in our towns, not the damn companies. I challenge him to come see the destruction caused by those giant machines, and to look at a valley fill up close, then look at the destruction downstream. I challenge him to look into the eyes of someone who lost a loved one in the latest floods."

Groups participating in the DC trip include Clean Water Network, Coal River Mountain Watch, Citizens Coal Council, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

Tuesday, the groups intend to announce a press conference to be held in DC as part of their Wednesday visit.

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For pictures of the floods:

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