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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: July 23, 2009 11:16 AM

Abetting Historicide: Does Nancy Sutley's Regulatory Banter Cover Up Crimes Against Coalfield Residents?


Mired in the acrobatics of regulatory doublespeak, the Obama administration's increasing oversight of the unbearable daily toll on Appalachian coalfield residents from mountaintop removal begs the question: Are Obama's well-meaning but irresolute environmental administrators abetting the crimes of human rights violations and historicide?

Whether they are unaware of decades of regulatory circumvention by Big Coal or not, one extraordinary fact about the Obama administration is certain: While American citizens continue to lose their homes, health, jobs and heritage to regulatory manipulations by mountaintop removal operators in Appalachia, not one top level Obama administrator has bothered to visit and see the urgent human rights and health care crisis in the coalfields.

In effect, the mountaineers have been removed from the mountaintop removal debate.

Take Nancy Sutley, whose Council on Environmental Quality recently announced "unprecedented" actions to "regulate" mountaintop removal and "minimize adverse environmental consequences." For all of her good intentions, Sutley has never publicly mentioned or recognized the decades of human suffering, daily rounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil blasts, toxic dust, contaminated water, harassment and violence, desecration of cemeteries and national heritage sites, and the de facto forced relocation of American citizens from mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia.

Is it perhaps because she has never been to a mountaintop removal site?

Or that she has never sat in the home of coal miners like Steve and Lora Webb in Boone County, West Virginia, as a 2,000-pound ANFO blast exploded nearby?

Overwhelmed by the blasting of a nearby Massey Energy mountaintop removal operation, the Webbs now have 60 days to leave their beautiful home and century-old roots -- their multi-generational heritage and mountain homestead, and extraordinary cultivation of rare medicinal plants.

In a Coal Valley News interview last fall, the Webbs recounted their six-year nightmare of environmental regulatory loopholes and governmental inaction living near a mountaintop removal operation:

"It was like an earthquake," the couple says, describing the deep tremors caused by blasting on the mountain adjacent to their home ... "When they set off their explosives, you get a whole storm of dust that covers everything -- the cars, the houses, the trees. It looks like ash or a fallout," Steve Webb said, sharing that he has also witnessed rocks hitting trees and the asphalt road. "If a child happened to be out in the road playing when they set the blast off, they would have been injured," Webb said, recalling one particularly strong blast that occurred several months ago.

Its destruction legally sanctioned through federal and state environmental regulations, the great American pastoral for the Webb family will be erased from existence in two months.

The complete Coal River News interview is here.

The Webbs are one example of many, many centuries-old families that have been legally hounded out of the mountains by Big Coal manipulations of environmental regulations.

And yet, EPA's Acting Assistant Administrator Michael H. Shapiro, in announcing the EPA's sign-off on 42 of 48 mining permits, wrote last spring: "I understand the importance of coal mining in Appalachia for jobs, the economy and meeting the nation's energy needs."

Environmental protection somehow didn't include the human needs of the coalfield residents.

More so, Shapiro demonstrated an incredible lack of understanding about Appalachian coalfield history, or the reality that mountaintop removal coal accounts for less than 5-7 percent of our national coal production, and that unemployment and poverty rates have skyrocketed in the most heavily strip-mined areas of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia due to mechanization and mountaintop removal operations.

As former West Virginia Congressman Ken Hechler noted in 1971, in his battle against the 1977 Surface Mining Act that granted federal sanctioning to mountaintop removal, the devastation of strip mining on his region's broader economy was inevitable:

What about the jobs that will be lost if the strippers continue to ruin the tourist industry, wash away priceless topsoil, fill people's yards with the black much which runs off from a strip mine, rip open the bellies of the hills and spill their guts in spoil-banks? This brutal and hideous contempt for valuable land is a far more serious threat to the economy than a few thousand jobs which are easily transferable into the construction industry, or to fill the sharp demand or workers in underground mines.

In truth, strip mining more than strips the land; it strips the traces of any human contact. It results in a form of historical ethnic cleansing. Consider the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, an area today of wooded hills and riparian bottomlands off the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois, and the historic place of the birth of commercial strip mining of coal in the United States in the 1850s.

While the recreation site is now lauded by environmental regulators for its reforestation (albeit slight in diversity compared to the virgin forests) and fun recreational sites as the first state park developed from denuded strip-mined pits, it remains a haunting reminder of the removal of the Kickapoo and their ancient settlements, and the historic role of Kennekuk, the Kickapoo diplomat who lived in the area.

The Kickapoo villages were churned into ashes and spoil piles, stagnant mine ponds and pits; the first mechanized strip mining machines rattled their blades across the land cleared of virgin forests, creeks and 1,000-year-old Native settlements until 1939.

Unlike the dogwoods and the duck ponds, the Kickapoo will never return. Even worse, their history has been relegated to the heap pile of a vanished past.

The impact of mountaintop removal on historic and contemporary Appalachian settlements and coalfield communities is no less tragic. It has not only destroyed the natural heritage. It has deracinated the Appalachian culture, depopulated the historic mountain communities, and effectively erased important chapters of Appalachian history from the American experience.

With over 500 mountains destroyed, the central Appalachian coalfields and hollows are systematically being turned into boarded-up ghost towns and overgrown broken cemeteries.

Even the cemeteries are being wiped off the maps. Last weekend in Boone County, West Virginia, Danny Cook and several of his family members discovered access to their family cemeteries on Cook Mountain apparently had been intentionally blocked. Horizon Resources LLC is operating a surface mining operation on the mountain.

According to state law, coal companies mining near cemeteries must allow family members access to those cemeteries. A detailed account of the scene on Cook Mountain, with photos, is online here.

Cook was attempting to visit the grave of his ancestor, Civil War veteran William Chap, who served in the forces to end slavery, including the estimated 3,000 slaves that worked in the coal mines and salt wells in the Kanawha River Valley alone.

The destruction of cemeteries and heritage sites, and historic communities -- including the recent decision to take off the strip-mine-threatened Blair Mountain in West Virginia from the National Registry due to regulatory procedures -- is part of a process of what some academic observers call "historicide," the eradication of people from history, or at least killing their presence in history.

As one of the last holdouts on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, an area that has been decimated, Larry Gibson's tenacity to defend his mountain heritage and cemeteries in face of regulatory machinations has become legendary, though not without a price. The story of his hollow's depopulation and destruction, and razed cemeteries, is here.

Historicide sounds over the top to some. But this severe interpretation of history is not easy to disregard when all that remains of your heritage and your family's 200 years of important American history is a shattered cemetery surrounded by out-of-state coal company fences and do-not-enter signs.

In an exclusive interview with Grist last month, Sutley's fuzzy understanding of the human costs of mountaintop removal was painfully clear, as she adhered to Big Coal's marketing phrase of "mountaintop mining" instead of "mountaintop removal" that has been used by residents and writers for three decades. Sutley declared:

I think everybody acknowledges it, the President has said it, everybody we talk to acknowledges that there are serious impacts associated with mountaintop mining and we have to address that. Going forward we have to look at what we can do under existing authority to strengthen the oversight of these projects and to see that we are using those authorities fully to try to address the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining. So, does it mean fewer projects, I don't know the answer to that. But it will mean that we will deal with the environmental impacts of those projects.

Sutley's line is worth repeating: So, does it mean fewer projects, I don't know the answer to that.

Here is the clip of Sutley:

On the heels of Sutley's indecision, Clay's Branch, West Virginia, coalfield resident Bo Webb (no relation to the other Webbs) received notice that the violations noted by federal regulators would be circumvented by a WV state decision. Webb was told on Friday: While operators were ordered to stop blasting in Clay's Branch until they placed all the material, rocks, flyrock, boulders, downed trees and all back on their permitted area, the WV Department of Environmental Protection reviewed solution is to blast down to the next seam of coal, blasting closer to residents so they can get to all the material that is off the permitted area.

In a letter published in the Huffington Post, Webb lamented:

My family and I live in southern West Virginia, beneath a mountaintop removal site. I am forced to breathe silica dust everyday because of the blasting that is taking place right above me. Fly rock has landed in my garden. A boulder the size of a car hood came off there and stopped just short of my garden. The sediment catch ditches are full, again. The middle of the hollow is sliding in. The beautiful creek where I used to catch fish bait and along its sides dig ramps, mushrooms, and ginseng, is buried with rock, dirt and knocked down trees. The spring that we used to love to get water from is buried. The well water is sunken and muddy.


My house and my nerves rattle each day around 4 o'clock when the out-of-state Massey Energy company sets off yet another series of blast. And every evening I am reminded that my family has been on this mountain since around 1830 -- long before Massey Energy invaded from Richmond, Virginia; it's as simple as that.


For those who know history, Sutley's rhetoric is part of another regulatory story -- decades of regulatory circumvention. This is the truth: Until mountaintop removal is abolished, environmental regulations will fail to protect the health and welfare of coalfield residents.

Returning to his own Appalachian woods in the 1970s, environmental writer Edward Abbey concluded:

Something like a shadow has fallen between the present and past, an abyss as wide as war that cannot be bridged by any tangible connection, so that memory is undermined and the image of our beginnings betrayed, dissolved, rendered not mythical but illusory. We have connived in the murder of our own origins.