The majority of the country, after all, was against drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last year, Wilcher noted. “And guess what: Gas gets to $4 a gallon, and people wanted to drill offshore for oil and to drill in ANWR.”
Raney summed the attitude of many in coal country: “The Lord put the coal in the ground, and everyone up in Boston and elsewhere enjoys using it.”
“Stewardship is key,” he said. But “should we limit it? Absolutely not.”
Replanting the forest
The growth of mountaintop removal mining can be traced back – as can many an environmental conflict – to efforts to solve another environmental conundrum.
In this case, the need to stem acid rain drove industry out of high-sulfur deposits in northern Appalachia and the Midwest and to the low-sulfur coal of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of those Appalachian seams are too shallow to mine conventionally.
The result is that while coal tonnage has decreased in Virginia since 1990, it has stayed steady in central and southern Appalachia as industry compensates with mountaintop removal, said Carl Zipper, director of the Powell River Project, a research program of Virginia Tech aimed at enhancing communities and restoration efforts in the state’s coalfields.
There’s an incalculable benefit to this shift, noted Wilcher, the lawyer and former regulator: Mountaintop removal mining is safer and requires fewer hands. Coalfield mining deaths have dropped precipitously as a result.
Throughout the ‘70s an average of 35 miners died annually. By the 1980s the annual death rate had dropped to the mid-20s. Today it’s in the single digits; not a single miner died in 2006, a first.
Reclamation practices are changing, too.
In the past, standard practice was to blow the top off the mountain, shovel the overburden into the valley, mine the coal, spray the area with foreign grass seed and hope for the best.
That left the acidic topsoil crucial for forest growth buried under compacted alkaline overburden. Streams became channels. The invasive grass out-competed other plants and stymied any sort of natural succession. Trees, if they were planted, were black locust, ash, sycamore, white pine – far less valuable than the hardwoods they replaced, said Virginia Tech forestry professor Jim Berger.
The Appalachian forest, cleared and logged three times over since Daniel Boone crossed the mountains, would need at least 300 years to grow back at mine sites with such reclamation efforts, Berger figures.
In 2002 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed its restoration guidelines, requiring operators to restore streams in a more natural manner and regulating the type of ripples and pools, sinuosity, slope and conductivity.
The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining now encourages operators to restore the hardwood forest when they’re done, said Patrick Angel, an agency forester and soil scientist based in London, Ky. In every new surface mining permit issued recently in Virginia and in 80 percent of those in West Virginia, the mining company has committed to reclaim the land by planting a diverse hardwood forest, according to agency figures.
Not all rules move reclamation efforts forward, however.
In mid-October the Office of Surface Mining proposed repealing a 25-year-old prohibition on the dumping overburden in valley streams – a repeal the industry describes as crucial for the expansion of mountaintop removal mining.