Lord, Give Me Time

07/25/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Coal River, WV -- I hope that when I am 94 I am able and eager to do exactly what retired coal miner and former Congressman Ken Hechler was doing in Coal River yesterday: getting arrested for the cause he has so long worked for. Hechler, along with NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Judy Bonds, and actress Daryl Hannah, was arrested and released yesterday. Media reported that a total of 14 people were arrested, and Bonds was actually assaulted by a Massey Coal employee, who was in turn arrested for battery.

The protest was over a Massey mining project that has erected a 2.8-billion-gallon toxic coal sludge impoundment behind the earthen Shumate Dam, just hundreds of yards from the Marsh Fork Elementary School. The community is also subject to ear-splitting mountaintop-removal blasts daily. The protest was the beginning of a yearlong campaign against mountaintop-removal mining.

Hechler was the leader of the fight in the 1970s to stop strip-mining -- a fight that seemingly ended in victory when Congress passed the Surface Mining Reclamation Act of 1977. But instead of getting cleaned up, strip-mining morphed into the monster called mountaintop removal mining, which was outrageously legalized by a series of regulatory and court decisions that authorized the dumping of entire mountains into streambeds as consistent with the Clean Water Act. (A few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the underlying Bush administration rule that legalized the whole racket.)

The recent Coal River protest was the beginning of a nationwide campaign to end the practice of mountaintop-removal mining once and for all. Although the Obama administration has made some progress reining it in, the reality remains that mountaintop-removal mining should, quite simply, be made illegal and stopped. As Hansen put it: "I am not a politician, I am a scientist and a citizen. Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose, but it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient. Mountaintop-removal mining, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be abolished."

The defense of mountaintop-removal mining -- as formerly with strip-mining -- is that the economy of Appalachia depends on it. This canard now has been solidly rebutted by West Virgina University, which released a new study this week showing that the cost, in human casualties alone, of the coal industry far exceeds the benefit it provides the region. The study estimates that the total benefit of the coal industry to Appalachia is $8 billion a year. Premature deaths caused by the coal industry cost  five times as much: $40 billion. Coal kills, and its toll appears to be between 4,000 and 10,000 people in Appalachia each year, largely from exposure to various pollutants related to coal-mining.

The West Virginia study didn't even attempt to quantify the costs of destroying communities, lost property values, hundreds of miles of streams choked with mining waste, or even the loss of renewable energy opportunities from wind farms on the mountain ridges at Coal Mountain, which appear to be worth more as an energy source than the coal itself!