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If Big Coal Can Phase Out Mountaintop Removal, Congress and the White House Can Pass the ACHE Act

Energy

Jeff Biggers

Call it a moment of truth for Big Coal—and a small crack in the wall of denial for the U.S. Congress and the White House.

On the cliff of bankruptcy, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal Corporation agreed this week to a settlement to phase out its large-scale strip mining and mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia.  Even more importantly, Patriot became the first coal company to admit "our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways, and we are committed to maximizing the benefits of this agreement for our stakeholders, including our employees and neighbors.”

That's not quite a full admission of Big Coal's role in the mounting humanitarian crisis from mountaintop removal, but the action by Patriot, engineered in a court settlement thanks to the extraordinary work of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Mountain Advocates and the Sierra Club, is an important step toward abolishing the 40-year nightmare of mountaintop removal.

Mountain near Rawl, West Virginia: Largely hidden from most Americans, a highly destructive form of coal mining called mountaintop removal has devastated one million acres in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. People across America use electricity that is at least partially generated by mountaintop removal coal, but it is a small amount that could easily come from cleaner sources of energy.

Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices flight courtesy of SouthWings. Photo by Kent Kessinger

In a line: If Big Coal recognizes the damages of mountaintop removal and agrees to phase it out, isn't it time for the U.S. Congress and President Obama to bring an end to the most egregious environmental and human rights violation in the nation?

For those living amid the toxic fallout of massive strip mining and mountaintop removal operations in central Appalachia, which provides less than five percent of national coal production, the time has come to pass the ACHE Act, the historic bill that calls for "a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services."

"I pray this action by Patriot Coal to halt the impact of man's destructive abomination upon God's creation might serve as a catalyst for the U.S. Congress to expedite the enactment of HR 5959," said Mickey McCoy, ACHE coordinator for Kentucky, "reducing cancer death rates and birth defects of children within the human race who reside in Appalachia."

“For a company to admit that it’s harming the community is a major step, but we can’t wait for all the companies to end mountaintop removal out of the goodness of their hearts," said Debbie Jarrell of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. "Citizens have pleaded with Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and others for decades to stop this abominable practice, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears and government agencies have not ended the practice. I worry for my grandchildren’s health and for the health of everyone in the community. Patriot is showing that a company doesn’t have to threaten its neighbors’ health and that mountaintop removal is unnecessary.”

In a released statement yesterday, ACHE campaign coordinator Bo Webb added:

“We greatly appreciate the inimitable work of Appalmad, Sierra Club, OVEC and WVHC in bringing about this significant move. However, we cannot afford to rest.  Health damage continues to climb as Alpha Natural Resources and other coal companies persist in blasting mountains to ashes, spreading silica dust and elevated levels of PAH toxins across our communities, contaminating our air, our water and our garden soils. This admission and action by Patriot Coal is a clear mandate to the US Congress to immediately pass the ACHE Act into law; providing an immediate pause on all new mountaintop removal permits and a health study to address the effects of MTR on human beings. Until then, mountaintop removers will continue to jeopardize thousands of citizens’ lives while state agencies do nothing to protect us. We’ve been exposed to hazards such as toxic blasting dust for years, and are now experiencing the long term health impacts. I’m tired of watching my family and neighbors die.”

The ACHE Act, HR 5959, would place an immediate moratorium on new or expanding mountaintop removal permits until the federal government completes health studies proving that the practice does not endanger human health. Fourteen original co-sponsors introduced the ACHE Act in the U.S. House of Representatives in June; it now has 27 cosponsors.

According to the ACHE campaign, the bill's co-sponsor U.S. Representative Louise M. Slaughter (NY-28), a native of Harlan County, Kentucky, added to the call for real action by Congress: "When industry representatives admit to the dangers of mountaintop removal mining, there can be no more excuse for inaction or delay.  The Appalachian community has fought hard for today's settlement. It is high-time that the federal government join the fight to end mountain top removal and protect additional Appalachian communities from similar threats to the environment and public health."

Now it's time for the U.S. Congress and the White House to respond.

Visit EcoWatch’s MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL page for more related news on this topic.

 

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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