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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: September 21, 2010 07:42 AM

There have been a lot of excellent blogs recently on the enthusiasm gap among progressives, Democrats and even the Obama administration, and among climate movement activists in search of a play.

Well, ain't no enthusiasm gap in the coalfields across the nation.

With millions of pounds of ANFO explosives detonating fly rock and toxic silica dust each day, deadly coal slurry and coal ash seeping into their waterways, the creeping threat of forced removal by Big Coal knocking on their doors, and their coal-strangled towns entrenched in poverty, coalfield residents share a profound sense of urgency.

Exactly one year ago, I wrote about the "coalfield uprising" based in Appalachia, where a determined campaign of citizen lobbyists, coal miners, and environmental groups sought to convince the Obama administration to abolish mountaintop removal.

Well, that didn't work, so the uprising is now a-rising: Appalachia Rising. And it's coming to Washington, DC on September 27th.

Coalfield residents are no longer afraid of Big Coal and their PR fronts or their bankrolled politicians. And they're fed up with shouldering -- like coal miners -- the staggering human and environmental costs for our nation's dirty energy policy.

As I understand it, Appalachian coalfield residents and their allies are coming to DC next week with one main demand: Decades of Big Coal circumventions and regulatory machinations and stacks of scientific studies on irreversible destruction have clearly shown that mountaintop removal and strip-mining must be abolished, not regulated.

After the EPA's new guidance rules on mountaintop removal operations drew national press last spring, the federal agency's first act two months later was to hand out a mountaintop removal permit. Worse yet, the day after the EPA's mountaintop removal announcement, the feds quietly greenlighted the expansion of the largest strip mine in the West, the Antelope Mine in Wyoming, which will produce more coal than all of West Virginia's mines combined.

Strip-mining is a crime against nature and our communities -- from Appalachia to Alaska -- and it must be ended in every state. Mountaintop removal, in fact, accounts for less than 10 percent of our national coal production.

In my own southern Illinois coalfields, for example, Appalachian firms notorious for mountaintop removal are now expanding strip-mining operations -- a West Virginia coal baron, citing that the low-hanging fruit in the Appalachian coal basin had been picked, is now shifting to the devastating longwall mines in the central Illinois farm counties.

So, coalfields are rising across the nation.

Last week in Birmingham, Alabama, enthusiastic students and concerned citizens took their University of Alabama officials to task for considering a wrongheaded plan to lease land for a strip mine near the Black Warrior River. Fishermen in Alaska recently called on their governor to halt a strip mine from wiping out their livelihood and large sections of river salmon habitats. In Utah, even the normally hesitant National Park Service called on Utah politicians to stop a tourism-busting strip mine from opening down the road from Bryce Canyon National Park.

It's hard to curb your enthusiasm when a 13-million pound dragline monster is heading for your farm or forest to rip out the biggest strip mine in the East -- in Indiana, by the way, not Appalachia.

A few days ago, I sat around the table with a group of farmers and raging grannies in Hillsboro, Illinois, who fiercely debated strategies and tactics on how to get their incompetent state agencies to enforce mining laws and stop the destruction of their farms and homelands from reckless longwall mining.

The Citizens Against Longwall Mining carried out some of the most informed and lively discussions on energy policy I've heard in ages. The wreckage from longwall mining--the process of removing pillars and allowing for subsidence--is emerging as the next nightmare episode in energy extraction from Pennsylvania to the heartland and the America West.

Meanwhile, coalfield residents and their urban allies converged on EPA coal ash hearings in Chicago and Charlotte and Dallas last week with thunderous calls for the federal agency to recognize science and the huge health and human costs, and regulate the toxic residue as hazardous material.

At the same time, the campaign to phase out prehistoric coal-fired plants and launch a just transition in the coalfields for clean energy manufacturing and sustainable economic development has been growing. A green jobs commission now operates on the coal-rich Navajo Nation, as residents waged a herculean campaign to stop the proposed Desert Rock coal-fired plant.

Check out the New Power movement launched this week by the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Fed up with political inaction and the stranglehold of Big Coal lobbyists, citizens have come together for a bold new step to put money and volunteer grassroots power behind clean energy candidates.

So, the coalfields are rising -- just as they did in the 1960s and 1970s when a vibrant national movement rose up to abolish strip-mining. That national movement was ultimately betrayed by a lack of coalfield solidarity, activist fatigue and compromises among environmental lobbyists in Washington, DC, leading to the ineffective Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 (SMCRA).

In 1977, the Appalachia Coalition called SMCRA a "blatant travesty."

With the destruction of 500 mountains and one million acres of hardwood forests since then, mountaintop removal has become a blatant tragedy, and Appalachians and their allies from around the country will converge on Washington DC on September 27 to call for its abolition once and for all.

So, cheer up, enthusiasm seekers -- get thee to the coalfields, or Washington, DC for a shot of inspiration.

Here's a clip from the new film documentary, Deep Down, on the resiliency of a coalfield community in eastern Kentucky that defiantly took on the expansion of a mountaintop removal operation:


Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, and The United States of Appalachia.