On May 6, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved a permit to significantly expand a mountaintop removal (MTR) mining operation near Kanawha State Forest and the community of Loudendale. Under this permit, the deforestation, blasting, noisy machinery and plumes of toxic dust will move continually closer to the forest and Loudendale over the next 10 years.
The operation will be close enough that the mining company, Keystone Global, has been given the right to close the Forest’s shooting range road and adjacent hiking/biking trails during the frequent times when blasting occurs. Blast warning signs have already been posted at Forest trailheads.
A growing community of people is coming together under the name of the Kanawha Forest Coalition to appeal and oppose this permit. The coalition includes residents of Loudendale, residents of other nearby communities such as South Hills and Mount Alpha, and people who use and appreciate the forest. The coalition will host an informational meeting July 8.
There are two primary reasons for the Kanawha Forest Coalition’s opposition to this permit. First, this is a terrible location for conducting MTR mining. Kanawha State Forest is a 9,300 acre tract of Appalachian Forest (which is arguably the finest temperate forest on Earth), located 5 miles from the state Capitol. This makes the forest a wonderful asset, a gem. The forest is exactly the kind of quality-of-life feature that helps us to attract and retain the highly educated, skilled young people who are critical to building modern, diverse economies. What message are we sending to these young people when they see one of our finest assets encircled with the ugliness and devastation of mountaintop removal? How is this consistent with our efforts to expand tourism and promote a more positive image of West Virginia?
It also makes no sense to conduct mountaintop removal directly upstream of a Loudendale community that suffered devastating flooding just over 10 years ago. In addition, a growing body of evidence from peer-reviewed research is showing that people who live near MTR operations suffer significantly higher rates of disease and illness, as well as lowered life expectancies. This correlation holds true even after controlling for differences in income and lifestyles. One likely reason for these health impacts is repeated exposure to toxic fine dust particles, and these particles are carried by the wind well beyond the boundaries of mine sites. So why is our state government allowing an MTR operation in a location that will expose Charleston area residents to these elevated health risks?
The coal industry tries to keep such discussions focused on jobs and cheap electricity. But let’s look more closely at the impact of the coal industry on West Virginia, beginning with an analogy. In the Amazon Forest, both individuals and corporations have sought wealth by engaging in a practice commonly referred to as “slash and burn,” where they cut down a section of the forest, burn the stumps, and then farm or graze animals for five to seven years, at which point the tropical soils are depleted of nutrients, creating a wasteland. Then the developers move on and do the same thing on more tracts of land.
We look at such self-destructive behavior and wonder what they can possibly be thinking. Yet, other than the fact that coal mines may last a little longer than tropical farms, is there any real difference between this approach to economic development in the Amazon and the practices of the coal industry in West Virginia? The reality is that relying on coal is not an effective strategy for building healthy communities or a sustainable economy.
Sadly, the coal industry has been even more destructive than necessary. I’ve often wondered if there aren’t at least a few reasonable, responsible executives in the coal industry who value and support rigorous, effective safety inspections and regulations, a few executives who are interested in mining coal while causing the least possible damage to the environment and to human communities. Yet if these executives exist, they choose to remain silent.
Instead of cooperating with regulators, community members, and environmentalists, the industry has chosen to use its political clout to resist a strong and effective system of oversight. This is why safety inspections are infrequent, regulations are inadequate, and enforcement consists of slaps on the wrist. It’s why mines still explode more often than they should, miners still die from black lung, and the hard-won pensions and health benefits of miners are taken away from them. This is why thousands of miles of ecologically vital headwater streams are sterilized by acid runoff or buried under the rubble of valley fills. This is why our landscape is seeded with hundreds of toxic sludge impoundments that are disasters waiting to happen, either swiftly (Buffalo Creek, etc.) or slowly (leaching into groundwater). And this is why we are advised not to eat the fish from West Virginia because their bodies contain too much toxic mercury.
The citizens of West Virginia deserve better than this. The second reason the Kanawha Forest Coalition is opposing this mining operation is to send a loud and clear message to the coal industry and to our political leaders that the future of West Virginia needs to be about more than protecting the profits of a single industry.
The full name of our organization is Kanawha Forest Coalition: For a Healthy West Virginia. We seek to build a better West Virginia that supports healthy bodies and minds; thriving, vibrant communities; a diverse, sustainable economy; and a truly representative political system.
We are having a public meeting on Tuesday, July 8, at 6 p.m. at Village Chapel Presbyterian Church on Venable Avenue and 39th St. in Kanawha City. We will be providing information about the impacts of this MTR mine, and we’ll talk about how we can effectively oppose this mining operation. Please join us. To learn more, email KanawhaForestCoaliton@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/kanawhaforestcoaliton.
James C. Waggy is an organizer for the Kanawha Forest Coalition.