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When future historians study our time, they really should focus on mountaintop removal strip mining in Appalachia. It will tell them everything they need to know about America in the early 21st century.

Mountaintop removal is a dirt-cheap way to mine thin seams of coal near the surface. This practice has already scarred an obscene amount of a biologically diverse ecosystem. Trees dozed. Soil destroyed. Streams covered in toxic mining spoil. The coal industry promises it will one day restore the land to its original state but everyone knows that those are lies. The standard practice has always been to declare bankruptcy when a coal mining operation is no longer profitable and leave cleanup to the public. Everyone knows the very same thing will happen to the toxic dumps left behind from mountaintop removal mining.

Here is a quote from a recent U.S. Geological Survey press release.

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. – Appalachian streams impacted by mountaintop mining have less than half as many fish species and about a third as many fish as non-impacted streams, according to U.S. Geological Survey research published this week in the journal Freshwater Science.

The researchers used data from several time periods to track changes in fish diversity and abundance in the Guyandotte River basin in West Virginia, including streams with and without headwater mining operations. The original fish data were collected by a team from Pennsylvania State University between 1999-2001, and USGS collected additional data from 2010-2011.

“The Appalachian Mountains are a global hotspot for freshwater fish diversity,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and lead author of the study. “Our paper provides some of the first peer-reviewed research to understand how fish communities respond to mountaintop mining in these biologically diverse headwater streams.”

It is just the latest study to document what we already knew, namely that mountaintop removal is destroying the aquatic ecosystem and impairing water quality in distant watersheds. What sort of sane nation lets a few coal companies destroy more than a 1000 miles of streams in less 20 years?

We are also talking about the destruction of a large carbon sink to dig up more carbon, which will soon be dumped into the atmosphere or ocean. There is plenty of climate science that says that is a truly stupid thing to do. Yet people shrug.

It is safe to say that very few people in America give a shit about the mess the coal industry is making in Appalachia. Most seem to write it off as just the cost of doing business. The industry has a legal right to make a mess to turn a profit and leave the mess for the public to clean up. It must be written in the U.S. Constitution somewhere in special ink.

Here is what saddens me. There is no big progressive campaign to stop the destructive process. Yes, there are plenty of local progressives slaving on a shoestring to generate awareness about mountaintop removal, but to little or no effect on a state or national level.

If you want to run for office in West Virginia or Kentucky, you have to pledge allegiance to the coal industry. I would love to hear an exception to that rule. We all know Alison Lundergan Grimes has to express her deep dissatisfaction with the federal "war on coal," including pesky regulations on mountaintop removal mining. We all know that she does not stand a chance against Mitch unless she toes the coal company line. As an elected official, you cannot say unkind things about the industry until you are ready to retire. The late Senator Robert Byrd is the perfect example.

State and many municipal governments are dependent on coal tax revenue to operate anywhere near the black. As a result, they all want to expand production from mountaintop removal mines. Coal junkies. They have no plan for a future beyond coal.

To me, a sane nation does not tolerate destruction and corruption on this scale to enrich a few people. It is Darwin Award worthy behavior. Especially since there is growing evidence that the health of those living near these active mining sites is adversely affected, with many toxic smoking guns in the air, water, and soil.

We sometimes flirt with sanity. From the Charleston Gazette:

Big news today out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia: A three-judge panel has given the federal Environmental Protection Agency another victory in the agency’s efforts to combat water pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.

You can read the decision here. Basically, the court held that EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had legal authority to set up an Enhanced Coordination Procedures for reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mining operations, and that the EPA’s conductivity pollution guidance was not a final rule subject — at least not at this point — to legal challenge.

The decision throws out an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who had sided with the National Mining Association and the state of West Virginia, among others who had sued EPA to block the agency’s anti-pollution efforts.

The state of West Virginia partnered with the National Mining Association to sue the EPA to block a proposed conductivity standard. This standard which would make filling valleys with mining debris more difficult. They took preemptive legal against the EPA before the rule was even finalized. Anything to gum up the works. The state and industry already found one sympathetic judge. While they lost this round, odds are the coal industry will win eventually. The U.S. Supreme Court is quite fond of corporate rights.

Should a Tea Party fundamentalist become President, the EPA will be dismantled. It will be full speed ahead with dynamiting Appalachia.

Mountaintop removal mining is indeed the perfect symbol for a nation that has lost its very soul.

Originally posted to DWG on Sun Jul 13, 2014 at 07:19 AM PDT.

Also republished by Appalachian Journal.

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