EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Daniel Moattar
Eastern Kentucky's hills are interrupted by jarring flats of bare rock: the aftermath of mountaintop removal mining, which uses explosives to destroy and harvest coal-rich peaks.
The Obama administration had considered using stimulus money to pay for tree planting on former surface coal mines.
Imago Images / Zumapress<p>In an email to DW, a BOP spokesperson said more analysis was needed to address "environmental concerns," and declined to discuss the lawsuit's role in its decision.</p><p>Debbie Chizewer, the Montgomery Foundation Environmental Law Fellow at Northwestern University, called the decision a "victory for common sense" and a "recognition of the serious environmental and economic concerns" raised by the plan's opponents.</p><p>Chizewer said state agencies sometimes "end up merely checking the box, rather than taking a meaningful or substantive analysis" of environmental impacts and health risks.</p>
Prisoner and Forest Health<p>The suit was filed in November by 14 prisoners and public-interest law firm the <a href="https://abolitionistlawcenter.org/" target="_blank">Abolitionist Law Center (ALC)</a>. In April, the complaint was updated to include seven other prisoner-plaintiffs and local conservationists <a href="https://friendsoflilleycornettwoods.home.blog/" target="_blank">Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods</a>.</p><p>The Lilley Cornett Woods is a forest preserve near the planned prison site, which is home to three species of endangered bats. The group argues on its website and in legal filings that the proposal to build the prison endangered the forest with pollution, traffic and "massive quantities of sewage and cleaning chemicals."</p><p>Central Appalachian forests like the Lilley Cornett Woods are among the world's most biodiverse and threatened, according to a 2010 <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/business/energy-environment/15coal.html" target="_blank">New York Times report</a>.</p><p>Dustin McDaniel, ALC's executive director, believes the case is likely the first environmental lawsuit brought by incarcerated people, the first jointly filed by federal prisoners and local conservationists and the first in which U.S. prisoners have sued to prevent construction of a new facility.</p><p>"The failure, on the part of the BOP, to perform the required environmental justice analysis was a blatant attempt to circumvent the law at inmates' expense," wrote Robert Black, who is incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Colorado, in communications shared by the Abolitionist Law Center.</p>
Mountains of Coal<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/poverty-is-winning-the-war-in-reality-based-eastern-kentucky/a-45311970" target="_blank">Eastern Kentucky, home to about 750,000 residents</a>, has a remarkable four federal prisons — 13 times the average for an area its size. All were built between 1992 to 2005 in hopes of offsetting the loss of coal industry jobs that once powered this region.</p><p>The area's rate of labor force participation is 45 percent, about two-thirds the U.S. average. It now has fewer coal jobs than at any time since 1898.</p><p>Mountaintop removal has been a boon for mine operators, but generates less employment than conventional mining, and takes a harsher toll on surroundings.</p><p>Operators detonate mountaintops and shunt the millions of tons of debris into neighboring valleys, forming flat plots like the planned prison site.</p><p>This so-called "valley fill," which can include toxins such as arsenic and selenium, runs "a high risk of contaminating public water supplies," said Alan Lockwood, a neurologist and coal expert with <a href="https://www.psr.org/" target="_blank">Physicians for Social Responsibility</a>.</p><p>Streams and rivers run through many valleys in Appalachia, the mountainous region where Letcher County is located. Valley fill from decades of past mining now covers thousands of kilometers of Appalachian waterways.</p><p>U.S. Environmental Protection Agency <a href="https://abolitionistlawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Revised-FEIS-USP-and-FPC-Letcher-Co-KY-3-30.pdf" target="_blank">tests</a> of the proposed site found acceptable levels of heavy metals and water acidification, but "insufficient" cleanup of leaking natural gas equipment, and arsenic "well above" regional screening levels, the agency's standard for safe long-term exposure.</p>
The decline of coal has badly hit Kentucky's economy, and destroyed Appalachian mountaintops.
Imago Images / Zumapress
Prisons on Waste Sites<p><br>The planned prison is not the first to raise environmental concerns. One 2017 <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/06/report-americas-prisons-are-so-polluted-they-are-endangering-inmates/" target="_blank">analysis</a>, based on work by cartographer Paige Williams, found that more than 130 U.S. prisons lie within 1.6 kilometers (about 1 mile) of a Superfund site, areas with hazardous waste or pollution severe enough to require federal government intervention.</p><p>A further 600 are within 5 kilometers of such sites, and an unknown number of others sit on abandoned mines or dumps.</p><p>Another Eastern Kentucky prison, USP Big Sandy, is located in a strip mining area, and at least two prisons in neighboring Southwest Virginia are on mountaintop removal sites.</p><p>Public health studies indicate that residents of mountaintop removal areas suffer higher rates of medical conditions, from clinical depression to tooth loss.</p><p>They live shorter lives than those living near conventional coalfields — up to 1.5 years shorter on average — are more likely to suffer <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935111001484" target="_blank">birth defects</a> and suffer from heart disease and cancer.</p>
Exploring Green Alternatives<p>In place of prisons, some nearby coal-mining communities are eyeing environmentally friendly uses for abandoned mines.</p><p>In nearby Pike County, the state government has backed a plan to build a 100-megawatt solar farm, Kentucky's largest ever, on mountaintop mine lands. And a wind-power study of a mountaintop removal site in neighboring West Virginia found it could generate enough power to supply 70,000 homes.</p><p>Though the Bureau of Prisons could restart the testing process, and attempt to develop the site again, advocates and opponents believe that's unlikely to happen.</p><p>It's been rare for environmental activists to successfully influence major government decisions in Donald Trump's White House. But Black and his fellow plaintiffs have gone some way to demonstrating the growing reach of the U.S. environmental movement, whose activists are increasingly linking questions of emissions and energy to racial and criminal justice.</p>
Mountains aren't just a sight to behold—they cover 22 percent of the planet's land surface and provide habitat for plants, animals and about 1 billion human beings. The vital landforms also supply critical resources such as fresh water, food and even renewable energy.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a statement the Interior Department has directed it to cease its study on the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia.
The Interior Department, which committed more than $1 million to the study last year, has begun an agency-wide review of grants over $100,000 because of the "Department's changing budget situation."
By Katie O'Reilly
Two years ago—long before coal became one of the most dominant and controversial symbols of the 2016 presidential election—Bloomberg Philanthropies approached production company RadicalMedia with the idea of creating a documentary exploring the U.S. coal mining industry. Last spring, they brought on Emmy-nominated director Michael Bonfiglio, tasked with forging a compelling story out of the multitudes of facts, statistics and narratives underlying the declining industry.
A new briefing paper details how Dominion Energy's proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would involve the blasting, excavation and removal of mountaintops along 38 miles of Appalachian ridgelines as part of the construction.
Kentucky, like most of the Appalachian region, has been in economic distress since the bust of the coal mining industry. But, new hope for jobs and the ravaged environment may come in the form of the state's largest solar farm.
President Trump has officially killed the Office of Surface Protection's Stream Mining Rule, as he signed legislation undoing the Obama era protection Thursday.
By Heather Moyer
Junior Walk and I are standing where a mountain used to be. We're on a pile of rocks surrounded by even more piles of rocks and boulders. But that's not what has our attention.
By Heather Moyer
"The Brushy Fork coal sludge impoundment is only one mile above my parents' home. I better know all I can about it—not that it'll do much, though," Junior Walk told me as he drove me through the winding roads around Naoma, West Virginia. A West Virginia native and Coal River Mountain Watch activist, Junior knows all about mountaintop removal coal mining, coal sludge impoundments, driving an old truck up the side of a huge mountain and even death threats.
While recent headlines hastily declare the death of King Coal, a powerful new documentary based on seven years of investigation poignantly captures the complexities and largely overlooked stories of the enduring trauma of the coal industry on miners, their families, affected neighbors and the ravaged communities and Appalachian mountains they call home.
As one of the most timely, poetic and informed film documentaries released this year, Overburden: Two Women and the Mountain Between Them, chronicles a quintessential American journey—and the tragedy of lawlessness in the workplace and the environment—of two courageous women, formerly divided, who shed their fears and find common ground to begin the painful process of dealing with their grief, seeking terms of justice, and healing their damaged communities and mountains.
"We've all become family," Betty, a once fervent pro-coal supporter tells Lorelei, a coal miner's widow and vocal mountaintop removal mining organizer, in the film. "Don Blankenship has put us together," she adds, referring to the notorious former Massey Energy CEO. Recognizing the loss of Betty's brother in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, as well as her own suffering, Lorelei responds: "Too high of a price to pay, though."
As featured in Overburden—a chilling mining term that refers to the overlying rock and soil displaced, like besieged residents and miners, to reach underground coal resources—these two former adversaries will stand together when Blankenship finally goes on trial on Oct. 1 in Charleston, West Virginia, for charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards relating to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which took 29 lives.
To be sure, Lorelei and Betty will not only stand together in solidarity for mine safety and economic diversification.
"There's a desperate need for healing in the community," Lorelei says, in one of the most poignant moments in the film, as she packs up her belongings to move away.
Healing between families, communities, and the plundered mountains in central Appalachia—and in so many other strip-mined communities in southern Illinois, Wyoming and Montana, and on Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Navajo and other indigenous lands.
Embedded for years in West Virginia, Overburden director and University of North Carolina professor Chad Stevens is not only one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, but one of its best storytellers, who has done the tedious and indefatigable work behind the scenes to gain the trust of bitterly divided and traumatized communities, and allow his characters to speak for themselves and recount the process of such healing unfolding today. Stevens brilliantly balances the beauty of families and the mountains, amid the tension of its conflicts and demise; his footage of a bear cub, aimlessly wandering to the edge of a massive strip mine, in search of its mother, is singular in its power.
There are a lot of important film documentaries on mountaintop removal mining—a strip mining process that has literally detonated untold millions of tons of explosives to blow up the tops of more than 500 mountains and shovel up the coal with machines over the past half century. In the tradition of the Oscar-winning film documentary Harlan County, Overburden Stevens effectively transcends the "war on coal" political banter by capturing the human stories behind the daily operations of one of our nation's most misunderstood, complicated and devastating sources of energy.
Photo credit: Chad Stevens, courtesy of Overburden film
The portrait of Lorelei dispels many of the stereotypes of so-called "tree huggers" working to hold the coal industry and its sycophantic politicians accountable to various water and mining regulations. The widow of a miner who died from black lung disease, with a son-in-law in the mines, Lorelei joins a young community organizer, Rory McIlmoil, in a Coal River Mountain campaign for wind energy in an effort to draw attention for more sustainable economic development in the region. When a mining company launches its strip mining operations on Coal River Mountain, Lorelei travels to Washington as a representative of the affected residents, appealing to the Obama administration's "power to intervene."
Taking the viewer on a rare glimpse into the pro-coal circles, Betty is a matter-of-fact narrator who declares "coal is life here," and proudly posts a "Friends of Coal" sign. When the violation-ridden Upper Big Branch mine explodes in 2010, taking her brother's life in the process, Betty comes to the realization that "Massey Energy murdered my brother."
Joining efforts with Lorelei in an effort to revoke Massey's corporate charter, Betty sums up the reality of both miners and all communities affected by reckless mining: "If we don't stand up and fight, who's going to?"
Years in the making, Overburden is ultimately an extraordinary story of transformation; of two brave women who recognize their fates no longer need to be divided by outside forces that have controlled the region for over a century through fear, deprivation and outright violence, and take action for a more viable future.
With Blankenship's historic indictment—the first coal baron to be brought to trial for conspiracy charges in decades—Overburden should be required viewing for President Obama, Congress and anyone who has ever depended on coal-fired electricity.
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Signaling a watershed shift in recognizing the national health crisis from cancer-linked strip mining in central Appalachia, more than 200,000 people have signed historic CREDO Action and Earthjustice petitions, calling on Congress to pass the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) and enact a moratorium on new mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).
With the Appalachian coal industry in a tailspin and the global banking community pulling out of mountaintop removal financing, the extraordinary show of support for the ACHE Act campaign effectively acknowledges that the only defenders of the cancer-linked radical strip mining operations are a handful of absentee coal companies, indicted coal baron Don Blankenship, and their fringe supporters in Congress.
A New Appalachia is Rising
Fed up with the stranglehold of mountaintop removal mining blocking any economic future, residents are pushing a regeneration plan for a diversified economy, and calling for Abandoned Mine Land funds and investment from President Obama's Power Plan to counter the irreversible health and environmental damage from strip mining.
"The more health research we conduct on mountaintop removal the more truth we discover. We have already discovered enough truth that any reasonable thinking person understands we must take urgent action to stop any further MTR until it is proven that MTR is not a public health threat," said Bo Webb, who lives under a mining operation and co-founded the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign. "Any politician, person, agency or organization that refuses to act quickly to protect our children from further exposure to mountaintop removal's toxic fallout is not serving The People well," Webb added.
The appeal to Congress on the basis of deadly and massive health costs sidesteps the Obama administration's flawed regulatory approach, which has hedged on any further crack down on the devastating mining process despite years of evidence and two dozen peer-reviewed health studies on the impacts of the extreme mining process.
The historic petitions, in fact, were delivered within days of the anniversary of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which granted federal sanctioning to mountaintop removal mining in 1977 over objections by President Jimmy Carter.
Keep that date in mind: How do you ask a plundered coal mining community to be the last community to die for a mistake?
Despite recent news headlines that mountaintop removal mining has dropped more than 60 percent since 2008, according to an EIS assessment, residents living in strip mining areas in central Appalachia were quick to remind the news media that destructive mine blasting and its toxic fallout continued to flourish in close proximity to houses, schools and farms, even though they had not been registered as mountaintop removal operations.
"While some companies may claim that they no longer conduct mountaintop removal, the blasting methods and health consequences are the same regardless of what they call it," said Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch. "Tonnage may be down in some places, but companies such as Alpha Natural Resources are still blasting above our communities and seeking new permits. Given the host of diseases associated with it among an innocent population, we can live without it far easier than with it."
Last week, in fact, on the same day the EIS assessment appeared, Coal River Mountain residents in West Virginia testified in opposition to a new 847-acre Alpha Natural Resources strip mine in their area.
"Mountaintop removal coal mining is a crime against Appalachia," said Josh Nelson, communications director with CREDO Action. "That's why grassroots activists around the country are demanding that Congress pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act and put an end to this deadly and unnecessary practice."
"The coal industry is destroying Appalachia, detonating millions of pounds of diesel fuel and explosives daily to rip the top off of mountains for coal," said Marty Hayden, Earthjustice vice president of policy and legislation. "More than 22 peer-reviewed scientific studies have found that cancer, disease, and birth defect rates are significantly higher in these areas. It's high time for Congress to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which would place an immediate moratorium on new mountaintop removal mining permits."
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A short video released this week has stunningly detailed drone footage providing a rare view of mountaintop removal coal mining and the increasing proximity of this destructive form of mining to people living in Appalachia. The video includes interviews with local citizens who want to end mountaintop removal mining and transition their communities in a more just and sustainable way.
Trip Jennings, an award-winning videographer who has worked with National Geographic, produced the video in partnership with Appalachian Voices and with support from Patagonia. Using camera drones and time-lapse photography, Jennings weaves images of the region’s natural wonders, the destruction from mountaintop removal, and the resiliency of the Appalachian people into an unforgettable tableau.
You’ll hear from Norman, a former coal miner who would like to see more rooftop solar and other forms of clean energy in the region … Kathy, a coal-miner’s daughter-turned activist who is witnessing it moving ever-closer to communities … and Carmen, a young person determined to stay and create positive change in her hometown.
Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit regional organization, released the video as part of its “Communities At Risk” project, a data-based, online mapping tool showing the increasing encroachment of mountaintop removal mining on communities even as coal is in decline in Appalachia. The group’s aim is to educate Americans about what’s at stake in Appalachia and urge President Obama to end mountaintop removal mining.
“This is no way to leave a legacy,” says Kate Rooth, campaign director for the organization. “It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations, starting with ending mountaintop removal mining.”
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