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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: June 9, 2009 11:04 AM

Should Wilderness Society Strip US Rep. Nick Rahall of the Ansel Adams Award?


"Something like a shadow has fallen between the past and the present, an abyss 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."
Edward Abbey, "Shadows from the Big Woods"

US Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) is an eco-hero to many on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rahall has been praised for his role in protecting our national forests from reckless timbering, expanding wilderness sites in West Virginia under the Wild Monongahela Act, and protecting the New River Gorge National River. He has been awarded honors from virtually every major environmental organization. In 2004, in bestowing the coveted Ansel Adams Award, the Wilderness Society declared that Rahall "has led the charge on mining law reform, protecting our national monuments from oil and gas drilling, and safeguarding Yellowstone's geysers from geothermal development, just to name three."

All of these laudable accomplishments notwithstanding, one truth remains: Over the past 30 years, beholden to the ruthless demands of outside coal companies in his own district, Rep. Rahall has overseen, or blatantly overlooked, one of the most egregious environmental and human rights violations in the nation: Mountaintop removal.

Under his tenure, Rahall has allowed the destruction of more than 500 mountains -- which would have been protected and cherished in Yellowstone or any other state in the West -- along with 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest, and 1,200 miles of streams through mountaintop removal mining. He has allowed the demise of historic Appalachian communities, and watched the stranglehold of a boom-bust coal industry drastically reduce jobs, depopulate the region, and destroy any hope of a future by relying on strip-mining.

When flooding wrought havoc in several West Virginia coalfield counties last month, Rahall blamed nature itself -- not the reality of mountaintop removal, as Jack Spadaro, the former head of federal mine inspector training noted in a Public News Service interview, pointing to "scientific studies done by teams of scientists, hydrologists and engineers, and they've all shown there is a link between mountaintop-removal mining and flooding."

Since the Wilderness Society conferred its award on Rahall for being "forceful, energetic, and wise in preventing special forceful, energetic, and wise in preventing special interests from exploiting places that Americans hold dear," Rahall has turned his back on the mountains and mountaineers while more than 3.5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives have ripped across the wilderness of his state every day -- that's over 5 billion pounds of explosives detonated in West Virginia alone since 2004, give or take a few million.

In 1977, as a 20-something freshman US Representative, Rahall made sure one of his first acts in Congress was to drive a loophole through the decade-long work of fellow West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler to ban strip mining. On the 30th anniversary of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Rahall recalled escorting US Rep. Mo Udall, the venerable House Natural Resources Committee Chair, to the southern Appalachian coalfields, where Rahall convinced the Arizona congressman to include a loophole for mountaintop removal operations in the surface mining bill. At a House hearing on the anniversary of SMCRA, Rahall crowed: "And he (Udall) agreed that with flatland at such a premium, that we should not totally abolish the practice of mountaintop mining; but that we should have an exemption, an exemption that would allow for better post-mining uses of that land."

Thirty years later, while Rahall still talks about putting golf courses and shopping centers on flattened ranges for "higher uses," the truth is that less than 3-5 percent of all mountaintop removal sites, according to most studies and estimates, have been returned to any post-mining uses. As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward detailed in a brilliant report in 1998 -- before the unfettered nightmare of the Bush administration mining policies was even unleashed -- most mountaintop mines were left as flattened pasture, at best.

Ward's series of reports can be read here.

Sure, Rahall can be poetic when speaking about protecting certain forests -- as long as there are no coal seams underneath. In dedicating a new wilderness area in West Virginia, in January 20, 2008, he declared: "Our southern mountains have been yielding their coal for generations and our northern ridgelines are being targeted by the merchants of wind power. More development is coming and, in most cases, it is welcomed. But as West Virginians, we are intimately connected to our land. We know that we will be judged by future generations on our stewardship of this land that is West Virginia. And so I believe it is of paramount importance that we, once again, set aside some of God's handiwork in our forests by preserving these federal lands in their pristine state."

How will Rahall's legacy be judged by future generations?

This spring, when the EPA under the Obama administration announced its intention for greater scrutiny of mountaintop removal permits, Rahall's true green colors came out to bloom. While Rahall openly admitted in April that West Virginia's "most productive coal seams likely will be exhausted in 20 years," he aggressively fought any review of mountaintop removal permits. He announced at a Logan County Rotary Club meeting in West Virginia on May 27th, when the "media erroneously reported that EPA was putting an end to mountaintop mining...Nick Rahall did not take this matter lying down." Rahall went on to say he "immediately began working with numerous Administration officials, as well as industry officials -- including area coal companies -- and the United Mine Workers. I met in my office with officials of the Army Corps of Engineers. I met in my office with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. I met with EPA Office of Water Chief of Staff Greg Peck. I met with White House Council of Environmental Quality Chairperson Nancy Sutley. I even talked with my former colleague in the House and now the current White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel."

In fact, on May 15th, Rahall held a much-ballyhooed press conference to announce that the EPA had cleared 42 out of 48 permits for mountaintop removal. He crowed again: "EPA made it very clear that it has no concerns about the remaining 42. In its letter to me, the EPA states: "The Corps may proceed with appropriate permit decisions on those remaining permits."

When the great environmental (Appalachian) writer Edward Abbey wrote that "The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders," he most certainly wasn't thinking about Rep. Rahall.

Perhaps the Wilderness Society needs to remind Rep. Rahall how it feels to be stripmined -- of his Ansel Adams Award. What would Ansel Adams think, having been honored as the namesake for his award for "preserving America's wild lands and to caring that future generations know a part of the work," if he knew the main cheerleader for mountaintop removal had been recognized in his name?

In the meantime, here's a clip of a virtual flyover over the wilderness and once populated hollows that have been destroyed by mountaintop removal for Rahall's neighbors in Wise County, Virginia: