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Going After Obama on Mountaintop Mining

Missed this over the long holiday weekend, but The Washington Post on Friday published a biting op-ed from Robert Kennedy Jr. in which the prominent environmental activist calls mountaintop coal mining “the worst environmental tragedy in American history” and attacks the Obama administration for doing far too little to end the destruction.

His wrap-up of what’s at stake:

Mining syndicates are detonating 2,500 tons of explosives each day — the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb weekly — to blow up Appalachia’s mountains and extract sub-surface coal seams. They have demolished 500 mountains — encompassing about a million acres — buried hundreds of valley streams under tons of rubble, poisoned and uprooted countless communities, and caused widespread contamination to the region’s air and water.

On this continent, only Appalachia’s rich woodlands survived the Pleistocene ice ages that turned the rest of North America into a treeless tundra. King Coal is now accomplishing what the glaciers could not — obliterating the hemisphere’s oldest, most biologically dense and diverse forests. Highly mechanized processes allow giant machines to flatten in months mountains older than the Himalayas — while employing fewer workers for far less time than other types of mining…

America adores its Adirondacks and reveres the Rockies, while the Appalachian Mountains — with their impoverished and alienated population — are dismantled by coal moguls who dominate state politics and have little to prevent them from blasting the physical landscape to smithereens.

Last month, the Obama administration took steps to rein in mountaintop removal, vowing to examine each new mining application to ensure the projects won’t have lasting effects on neighboring waterways. But the effort got off to a dubious start. Indeed, of the first 48 pending applications reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency, 42 were approved. Thirty-one of the 42 will bury at least one valley with mining debris, which often contains toxic heavy metals that wash into waterways below. At least one of the 42 will bury six valleys in mining waste.

When asked how burying six Appalachian valleys could have no detrimental impact on water quality, an EPA spokesperson replied that neither the number nor the size of valley fills are, by themselves, enough to determine a mine’s effects on water quality.

Considerations including the nature of the soils and rock to be disturbed by mining activities, the extent of previous mining in the watershed, the hydrology of streams to be impacted by the valley fills, materials management plans being employed to reduce exposure of contaminated soils and rock, and other considerations directly affect the extent of potential downstream water quality impacts. The agencies can not conclude categorically that 6 valley fills in a particular circumstance is too many, just as we can not conclude that three valley fills is categorically not enough to result in water quality impacts. Consideration of the potential impacts to water quality and the environment requires a project specific evaluation of all relevant factors.

But there’s another factor that goes unmentioned: the power of the coal industry to influence congressional lawmakers. Indeed, in the name of job creation and energy independence, the lawmakers representing the Appalachian states have a long history of defending the coal industry even as it levels the mountaintops and poisons local communities. In the middle of a recession, with energy costs already a concern on Washington’s collective mind, the White House has clearly avoided taking on the coal industry and its congressional supporters for fear of the political backlash.

It’s a dynamic not lost on Robert Kennedy Jr.

America adores its Adirondacks and reveres the Rockies, while the Appalachian Mountains — with their impoverished and alienated population — are dismantled by coal moguls who dominate state politics and have little to prevent them from blasting the physical landscape to smithereens.

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