Jedediah Purdy
Jedediah Purdy is the author of a trilogy of books on American political culture, most recently A Tolerable Anarchy. He grew up in central Appalachia, slightly outside the coalfields. He teaches environmental and constitutional law at Duke and is one of the 10,000 or so people who sometimes think that, together, they carried North Carolina for Obama in 2008.

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REASON 42: President Obama has done something about mountaintop removal.

The Appalachians are among the oldest mountains in the world. They are mainly gentle and green, but some of their ridges and defiles throw out sharp angles, reminders that these are the Rockies, mellowed by some 300 million years of erosion.

West of the stately Blue Ridge and the gracious Shenandoah Valley, things get hairier. The Appalachian coalfields lie in the ancient Allegheny Plateau, once a seabed, then a long slope down from the high mountains toward the Ohio Valley, and now a steep, erratic, often forbidding landscape that hundreds of streams have cut to resemble a honeycomb melting and collapsing into itself. Too steep for farming, too heavily forested for scenic vistas, and too inaccessible for much of anything else, the region has lived by the wave-and-crash economy of timber and coal.

Being a coal region has always meant dangerous work, labor conflict, and harm to the land. About 20 years ago, coal became a much more environmentally drastic proposition. Mining companies perfected mountaintop removal mining: dynamiting up to 400 vertical feat of mountain into rubble to get at deep veins of low-sulfur coal. Once explosives have destroyed the mountain, miners move the coal with draglines as tall as 20-story buildings. What was once mountain becomes “valley fill”: mining rubble has buried something like 1,200 miles of streams in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. One satellite-imaging study judged that mountaintop removal has leveled over 500 peaks across Appalachia and disturbed more than a million acres of land.

There are good arguments that mountaintop removal should be illegal under the Clean Water Act and the federal law that regulates strip-mining. Federal judges in West Virginia ruled it illegal in a wave of court challenges stretching back almost fifteen years, but conservative judges on appeals courts reversed these decisions and kept mountaintop removal lawful. That meant it had to be regulated under environmental laws, like any other mining. The George W. Bush administration gave mountaintop removal a free pass for eight years. As that administration closed up shop, it was preparing regulations that would have all but ensured quick approval for new mines.

As soon as President Obama came into office, his Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would take a much closer look at the environmental and human-health effects of mountaintop removal. The Obama administration eventually approved one of the biggest proposed mines, but only after cutting the mileage of buried streams in half. Then, in 2011, Obama’s EPA reversed the Bush administration’s 2007 approval of a huge operation, slated to mine nearly 2,300 acres of southern West Virginia and bury seven miles of streams. The decision was a very unusual use of a power under the Clean Water Act to pull a previous approval in order to avoid unacceptable environmental and health effects. It pitted EPA against the Army Corps of Engineers, which shares oversight of mountaintop removal and had issued the 2007 approval.

As the Obama administration worked its way toward this decision, evidence grew that mountaintop removal does all kinds of harm. The disrupted soil releases chemicals into both air and water. Epidemiologists found increased rates of birth defects, adult mortality, and various illnesses in areas affected by surface mining. Ecologists concluded that harm to stream and river ecosystems went well beyond the buried streams, estimating that more than a fifth of the region’s waterways were “impaired.” Even if mountaintop removal did not cause these harms, it would still be vandalizing an ancient, beautiful landscape for a few months’ worth of coal.

The Romney campaign has all but promised to renew Bush’s embrace of mountaintop removal. On August 14, Romney told Ohio miners that the President is “waging a war on coal.” “War on coal” has become a touchstone phrase for the coal industry’s political allies, a signal that they will give the industry what it wants if they take power.

President Obama has taken the harms of mountaintop removal seriously and tried to control them. His administration has carried out its responsibility to balance its energy policy with concern for the health of vulnerable people and that of Appalachian ecosystems.

Most environmentalists would like to see Congress ban mountaintop mining, but that is an agenda for a different Congress, and probably for a different decade. For now, the choice is clear. The Obama administration recognizes the harm mountaintop removal does and works to control it. A Romney government would back the coal companies until the last profitable seam of coal is gone and write off much of Appalachia’s landscape, ecosystems, and people as collateral damage.

Jedediah Purdy
 Carrboro, North Carolina

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