10/18/2010 09:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Let's Keep the Tops on Our Mountains

As the midterm elections approach, some progressives and environmentalists are thinking about sitting out the vote. It might be a better idea for them to focus their attention on mountain top removal by coal companies. It is an issue that provides a stark contrast between the environmental policies of George Bush's EPA and the EPA under President Obama. Recently, Shawn Garvin, EPA's Region III or Mid Atlantic states Administrator, began the process of revoking the permit for Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. This permit, issued in 2007 by the Bush Administration, allowed Arch to dynamite the tops of mountains covering over 2,000 acres and dump the residue into nearby streams and valleys.

Writing in the New York Times last week, John Broder reported that:

"In its review, the E.P.A. found that the project would bury more than seven miles of the Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch streams under 110 million cubic yards of spoil, killing everything in them and sending downstream a flood of contaminants, toxic substances and life-choking algae...Arch Coal had proposed to construct new streams to replace the buried rivers, but the E.P.A. said they could not reproduce the numbers and variety of fish and plant life supported by the indigenous streams."

Arch Coal is fighting EPA by falling back on the usual argument that intrusive government regulation kills jobs and restricts free enterprise. It's true that some jobs will be lost, and it's true that we certainly rely on coal and other fossil fuels to generate energy that we all need and use. But removing the tops of mountains and destroying the countryside to get at the coal underneath is so completely insane that I have trouble even arguing against it. Mountain top removal is just obscene. The jobs argument is simply absurd. It's like arguing that the police in New York City were wrong to reduce the annual homicide rate from 2200 to 500 because of the jobs lost in the funeral business or to oppose the reduction in crime because of the jobs lost in upstate prisons. The 250 jobs created by this destruction can and should be replaced by jobs that add to our long term wealth and well being. Let's be serious. It is hard to find a less sustainable form of extracting a resource from our planet.

The long term cost of the destruction of these natural ecosystems far exceeds the dollar value of the energy generated by the coal. The only thing that makes it profitable for Arch Coal is that they will get most of the profits from the coal. In the long run, the rest of us will pay most of the long term costs that come from the devastation of this land. They get the benefits; we get the costs. The federal government has spent around $30 billion to clean civilian toxic waste sites and even more to clean up defense waste. Private parties have also spent billions on toxic clean up, and of course, most of the remediation has yet to be completed or paid for. Mountain top removal gives our children the bill to clean up the mess caused by our own carelessness and short-sighted energy policies.

While it is obvious that there are significant differences between the two parties nationally, coal remains king in West Virginia. Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, in a tough fight to replace Robert Byrd in the United States Senate, has decided to sue the EPA to stop its effort to restrict mountaintop removal. This is as shameful as it is politically expedient. West Virginia's politicians have long catered to the coal industry and have delivered very little long term wealth and prosperity for the people who live in the state. With an annual median income of $37,989 in 2008, only Mississippi manages to be poorer than West Virginia. The desperation and poverty is obvious, but so too is the failed economic development strategy. Support for mountain top removal is just the latest in a long series of decisions that have harmed the people of West Virginia and kept them in poverty.

President Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson provide hope (yes hope) that this horrific cycle of short-sighted environmental destruction will finally end. They deserve our praise and support. It is time to recognize that the only economic growth that matters is long term, sustainable economic growth. Blowing up a mountain to get at the resources beneath it is a short-term, non sustainable way to generate energy. I have to believe that we are smart enough to figure out a better way to power our economy and a better way to create jobs for the people of West Virginia.