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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JULY 31, 2002
5:43 PM
CONTACT:  Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Judy Bonds, Coal River Mountain Watch, 304-854-2182
Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, 304-522-0246
Frank Young or Cindy Rank, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, 304-372-3945
State Groups Nix Meeting with DOI Head on 25th Anniversary of Federal Mining Law
 
CHARLESTON, WV - July 31 - Seven citizen groups working on coal mining issues turned down an invitation to meet here for a half hour Thursday with Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Gale Norton. The Office of Surface Mining (OSM), a bureau of DOI, intends to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) Thursday.

“We respectfully decline to let our organizations be used in what would be mostly a public relations gimmick so the Bush administration can pretend it has cooperated with environmental groups,” said Frank Young, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “SMCRA was enacted in 1977 and since then state and federal agencies have failed to implement the law.”

Wednesday, representatives of the Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Citizen Action Group, West Virginia Environmental Council, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the national group Citizens Coal Council signed and faxed a four and a half page letter to Norton explaining why they would not meet with her in Charleston Thursday. They did invite her to instead come to the southern coalfields for a longer meeting with residents affected by mountaintop removal / valley fill coal mining.

“As a life long resident of the Appalachian coalfields, from a family with 6 generations here, I am insulted by Norton’s offer of a 30 minute meeting. We are talking about our lives, our property and our children’s future,” said Julia Bonds, director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Given the past, recent and, no doubt, future flooding that we can link to mountaintop removal, we certainly deserve better. It would take me an hour just to drive to Charleston. If she really wants to learn about the horrifying effects of mountaintop removal, she really should come to us—and give us a little more notice before she expects us to meet with her.”

“A thirty-minute meeting is an insult to my family,” said Bill Price of Clear Fork in Raleigh County. “Where was Ms. Norton last year when the floodwaters were at the front steps of my house? Where was Ms. Norton two weeks ago when the town of Lyburn was devastated by a valley fill slide and sediment pond overflow? As far as I am concerned, if she can’t meet us here and see what is happening to us, she might as well stay in DC and explain how she can have a Cabinet position charged with enforcing SMCRA, when she is on record as saying that SMCRA is unconstitutional.”

The groups’ letter said, “It has been well publicized that, prior to your appointment to head the DOI, you maintained that SMCRA was unconstitutional. Many of our members have suffered immense hardship for over two decades because SMCRA has gone essentially un-enforced…

“Now, the DOI, under your leadership, is bent upon weakening SMCRA. It is frankly a distasteful proposition to us to help you commemorate 25 years of slack enforcement of SMCRA, especially given your push to gut portions of SMCRA and your previous public stance on the Act itself.”

After the groups faxed their letter, OSM officials called offering to extend the meeting to two and a half hours. Officials also told the groups that they had not meant to tie the meeting to the SMCRA anniversary.

“Whether or not Ms. Norton planned to promote her requested visit with us as part of OSM’s commemoration of SMCRA, meeting with her on this day, and for such a short time period, is completely unacceptable to all of us,” said Vivian Stockman, outreach coordinator with the Huntington, W. Va.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “We sincerely want to meet with her, but we want to meet in the coalfields where we can show her first hand the destructive effects of her policies.”

“The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and, no doubt, all the groups who declined to visit with Ms. Norton Thursday stand ready to engage in good faith discussions with federal or state officials on coal issues, but only if the objective is constructive movement toward implementing the law, not political staging,” Young said.

The groups’ letter contained a long list of grievances with the coal industry’s “excesses” and government regulators’ failure to enforce coal-mining laws.

###

Text of letter:

Coal River Mountain Watch

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

West Virginia Citizen Action Group

West Virginia Environmental Council

West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

West Virginia Rivers Coalition

Citizens Coal Council

July 31, 2002

Gale Norton, Secretary

U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C. Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20240

Dear Secretary Norton:

We appreciate your offer, conveyed to us via Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston field office of the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM), to meet with West Virginia citizens’ groups that are active on coal mining issues. The offer, as we understood it, was that you would meet with us on Thursday, August 1 at 9 a.m. for 30 minutes at a facility in Coonskin Park in Charleston. We understood that you would also fly over mountaintop removal sites with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, presumably from the Huntington District.

We must decline to meet with you at this time for the reasons cited below. However, we do extend to you an invitation to meet with coalfield residents, in the coalfields, as soon as can be arranged. We would expect that meeting, complete with ground tours of impacted areas, would take, at the very minimum, half a day. After his tour of a mountaintop removal equipment manufacturer’s facilities near Charleston, we extended to the President an invitation to visit the southern coalfields, but our request was turned down, because, we were told, the president was too busy. He did however visit West Virginia again on July 4th, but not the coalfields. Perhaps, given your interest in meeting with us, you can visit with coalfield resident leaders, in the coalfields, on behalf of the President.

But, we cannot meet with you in Charleston on August 1. Thirty minutes is simply not enough time for us to explain to you the day-to-day perils of living in the shadow of mountaintop removal operations. Additionally, we cannot meet with you on that day because the OSM, which you administer as Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), has chosen August 1 as the day it will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).

It has been well publicized that, prior to your appointment to head the DOI, you maintained that SMCRA was unconstitutional. Many of our members have suffered immense hardship for over two decades because SMCRA has gone essentially un-enforced. Still, SMCRA and other laws that ought to rein in the excesses of the coal mining industry have afforded citizens the opportunity to attempt to force regulators to regulate, and to attempt to force the coal industry to obey laws written to protect the health and safety of people everywhere.

Now, the DOI, under your leadership, is bent upon weakening SMCRA. It is frankly a distasteful proposition to us to help you commemorate 25 years of slack enforcement of SMCRA, especially given your push to gut portions of SMCRA and your previous public stance on the Act itself.

For instance, the Bush administration proposes to remove the buffer from the buffer zone rule of SMCRA, a rule that currently says that no land within 100 feet of a perennial stream or an intermittent stream shall be disturbed by surface mining activities. If you should decide to meet with us in the coalfields, you will see that this law is not well enforced, to state it politely. Yet, you would codify the outlaw behavior of the coal industry by eliminating this protection for both citizens and our life support system, that is, the environment.

A citizen lawsuit brought about because of the lax enforcement of coal mining laws forced state and federal agencies to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on mountaintop removal. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request from the Charleston Gazette, citizens have access to the draft of this endlessly delayed EIS.

As you should know, in West Virginia alone, at least 1,000 miles of our biologically crucial headwater streams have been forever obliterated by valley fills. Already, nearly 400,000 acres of the world’s most diverse temperate hardwood forests have been permitted for strip mining operations. Our communities and mountain lifestyles are in danger of extinction. The draft EIS shows that regulators expect mountaintop removal to destroy nearly 230,000 additional acres of our mountains and valleys. The study points out that many more miles of streams will be buried by valley fills, that streams not already buried could be seriously polluted, and that wildlife such as fish and songbirds in our biologically diverse area will likely be lost.

According to conclusions in the draft EIS, “Mountaintop (removal) mining operations in the Appalachian coalfields involve fundamental changes to the region’s landscape and terrestrial wildlife habitats. With the increasing size of these operations, a single permit may involve changing thousands of acres of hardwood forest into grassland.

"While the original forest habitat was crossed by flowing streams and was comprised of steep slopes with microhabitats determined by slope, aspect and moisture regimes, the reclaimed mines are often limited in topographic relief, devoid of flowing water, and most commonly dominated by erosion-controlling, herbaceous communities.”

We add that the converted herbaceous communities usually include non-native grasses that have further detrimental effects on ecosystems.

You have ignored the warnings of one of your agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which state that “tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat” is already occurring as a result of mountaintop removal. Instead of following the true intent of the EIS, which was to seriously study and document the numerous social and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, you have promoted the notion that the EIS should be used as a vehicle to centralize and streamline the permitting process.

The draft EIS shows us that OSM under DOI envisions one-stop shopping for SMCRA and Clean Water Act laws. We implore you to visit, on the ground, the result of the current permitting process. Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky have become the nation’s energy sacrifice zones. Why then would you speed up the permitting process?

The EIS studies suggest that variances for post mining land use (PMLU) requirements (variances from the requirements to return the land to a condition capable of supporting its prior use) are not happening as was envisioned. Apparently there are in place mechanisms that would ensure that PMLU occurs as envisioned. Unfortunately, OSM recommends deleting these actions from further consideration in the draft EIS!

Perhaps you could explain this pretzel logic to us upon your visit to the coalfields.

Of course, your participation in the administration’s push for a Clean Water Act rule change on the definition of “fill” is of grave concern to us. With this rule change, the administration is rewarding the outlaw behavior of the coal industry, and is attempting to legalize what are currently illegal valley fills at mountaintop removal operations. You essentially maintain that massive valley fills have minimal impact on the environment, including human communities. We, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, beg to differ. Take just the latest valley fill disaster on July 19, 2002. According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), this particular valley fill is about 900 feet high and 2,000 feet long.

An early morning thunderstorm (3 to 3 1/2 inches during a three-hour period) brought disaster to the little community of Winding Shoals Hollow at Lyburn in Logan Co., WV. Huge, rain-saturated chunks of a giant valley fill at Bandmill Coal Corp., owned by Massey Energy, cleaved away from the valley fill and crashed into a sediment pond below.

The falling debris completely filled the sediment pond, causing it to overflow and send a tidal wave of sediment-laden water churning down Winding Shoals Hollow, destroying two homes, damaging about ten others and hurtling 8-10 vehicles downstream. No one was killed, though there were some narrow escapes.

This is just one incident. In earlier floods in 2001 and 2002 people were killed and more homes, bridges, roads and schools were destroyed. The DEP (plus, as shown in a study within the draft EIS, both OSM and the Army Corps of Engineers) has concluded that mountaintop removal / valley fill coal mining has increased rainwater runoff, thereby exacerbating flooding. Minimal impact these valley fills are not. The rule change the administration has enacted is completely contrary to the intent of the Clean Water Act.

You also envision delegating MORE regulatory authority to the states. Incredibly, now that the “fill” rule change is finalized, you want to turn over to the states this aspect of permitting mountaintop removal operations. Surely you know that for West Virginia, where politicians have longed been controlled by the coal industry, this would mean a warp-speed increase to the ecocide that is mountaintop removal. Lax as it has been, the federal government has offered us some enforcement help. Sadly and regrettably, you would strip us of even this flimsy safeguard for our property and our lives.

The list of grievances with the failure of SMCRA and other laws and your push to further weaken these laws goes on and on and includes the following:

Bush Administration capitulation and ties to fossil fuel industries, including the appointment of Stephen Griles to the DOI;
The failure of state government to adequately rein in the excesses of the coal industry;
Blasting damages to homes and wells from mountaintop removal operations;
Failure to control coal and rock dust, which threatens human health;
Declining mining employment versus record levels of coal extraction;
Increased flooding due to increased runoff from mountaintop removal operations and the toll on lives and property associated with increased flooding;
Dangerously incorrect and inadequate mapping of underground mines which, as we have just seen, have serious implications in terms of miners’ safety as well as in terms of the safety of the 136 coal sludge impoundments across West Virginia;
OSM’s approval of West Virginia’s inadequate bonding system;
Mountaintop removal’s destruction to hardwood and herbaceous understory ecosystems, resulting in future loses of revenue and societal enjoyment;
Current and future impacts to the entire hydrologic cycle—from surface water to groundwater loss and ruination, including sedimentation and runoff control issues, the failure to address cumulative hydrological impacts of strip mining activities, and the associated loss of current and future revenues related to use and enjoyment of waters;
The DOI’s ecocidal denial of water’s incredible value to our very lives;
The coal industry’s failure to carry on contemporaneous “reclamation;”
The coal industry’s failure to “develop” at least 98 percent of strip-mined areas.

Furthermore, if you do in fact flyover mountaintop removal operations, you apparently will do so with the Army Corps of Engineers as your guide. The Corps is the very same agency that has publicly stated it “oozed” into issuing 404 permits for valley fills. The Corps is the agency that suggests razing the most biologically diverse temperate forests on earth, blowing up mountains and then dumping the rubble into streams has only a “minimal” adverse impact on the environment. We suggest you need a different guide and also, we request that a representative chosen by our organizations would accompany you on your flyover.

As residents of the West Virginia coalfields who are greatly harmed by mountaintop removal / valley fill coal mining, and as representatives of organizations working in these areas, we invite you to visit us in the affected areas. We implore you to see first-hand the devastation from mountaintop removal — including the aftermath of recent catastrophic floods in West Virginia and the massive coal slurry impoundment spill in Kentucky in 2000. To arrange a visit please contact any of the undersigned through the OVEC office at 304-522-0246.

We feel confident that in view of the scope of the risks to coalfield residents and the scale of the destruction at hand, it would be insufficient for you to allow only a half hour to meet with us in Charleston, especially on the day the DOI will commemorate the 25th anniversary SMCRA.

Sincerely,

(Computer generated fax, therefore signatures. Signed copy to follow via US Postal Service.)

_________________________________

Bill McCabe

Citizens Coal Council

PO Box 245

Cowen, WV 26206

_________________________________

Judy Bonds, Director

Coal River Mountain Watch

PO Box 18

Whitesville, WV 25209

_________________________________

Vivian Stockman, Outreach Coordinator

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

PO Box 6753

Huntington, WV 25773

_________________________________

Mary Wildfire, President

West Virginia Environmental Council

1324 Virginia Street East

Charleston, WV 25301

_________________________________

Norman Steenstra, Director

West Virginia Citizen Action Group

1500 Dixie St.

Charleston, WV 25301

_________________________________

Frank Young, President

West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

PO Box 306

Charleston, WV 25321

_________________________________

Jeremy P. Muller, Executive Director

West Virginia Rivers Coalition

801 N. Randolph Ave.

Elkins, WV 26241

CC: Michael Callaghan and Matt Crum, WVDEP

Roger Calhoun, OSM

Frank Matthews, Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District

Various members of the media

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