Monday, September 20, 2010

It's All About the Water

By Carl Galie

When we hear about mountaintop removal of coal, we visualize a devastated landscape, ravaged by what some call “strip mining on steroids”. We have seen the images of mountaintops reduced to rubble, but have we ever stopped to think of the real consequences of this mining practice?

Some view mountaintop removal as a regional problem only affecting a small group of people in the Appalachians and that it should be regulated by the states rather than the federal government. If you look at the larger picture though, you will soon come to realize that mountaintop removal is a national issue that is really all about the water.

The New River is a perfect example. The headwaters of the north fork begin as a small spring located on Snake Mountain near Boone, North Carolina and flows north through Virginia before merging with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River in West Virginia. On its journey north it passes through some of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems found in the Appalachians.

The Kanawha River begins in the heart of coal country where many of the headwater streams like the one I found on Snake Mountain have been buried by valley fills with the blessing of the federal government thanks to an executive order by the Bush administration in 2002. By simply changing the “fill rule” in the Clean Water Act by reclassifying mining debris from objectionable “waste” to legally acceptable “fill,” the mining industry was given free rein to dump mine waste and bury over 2,000 miles of headwater streams.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Bush era appointee, J. Stephan Griles, who was the Deputy Secretary at the US Department of the Interior and a former lobbyist for the National Mining Association, placed pressure on scientists and staff to disregard extensive scientific findings conducted by five separate federal and state agencies over four years in preparation for an environmental impact statement for the Office of Surface Mining. He felt that the EIS should focus more on centralizing and stream-lining the permitting process rather than concentrate on the negative impact of MTR.

Many of the scientists involved felt this was a disservice to the public and the heart of the Clean Water Act. Besides being the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Griles was also the highest Bush administration official sentenced in the Abramoff scandal for lying to congress.

When will we wake up and understand that political appointees are often given their positions as payback for their support and end up representing special interest groups rather than “we the people.” There is a lot of talk in coal country about how bureaucrats at the EPA are costing jobs, but I can’t help but wonder if the scientists at the EPA were allowed to write and enforce the environmental laws of the land without political interference if this wouldn’t actually create more jobs in the coal fields because coal companies would have to place worker and public safety over profits and hire more employees to comply.

The propaganda machine of the coal industry would lead you to believe that without coal West Virginia would be in worse economic shape than it already is, yet state statistics show that coal production is approximately 7% of West Virginia’s GDP. While the coal industry does provide around 20,000 jobs, many believe that the coal industry has held back West Virginia’s economic growth because of the political leverage it holds over politicians. As long as there is no real competition in the state, the coal industry will continue to enjoy political favors.

Clean water and public health should be above partisan politics. On March 4th, 2009, HR 1310 The Clean water Protection Act was introduced to congress to restore The Clean Water Act to its original intent. As of August 11th, 2010 this bill is still in the first step in the legislative process. Introduced bills and resolutions first go to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise them before they go to general debate. The majority of bills and resolutions never make it out of committee. This bill and S 696 The Appalachian Restoration Act have been stuck in committee since March 2009, and the possibility exists that these bills may die in committee, especially with any major changes in Washington after the mid-term elections.

A few years ago, while working on a project in eastern North Carolina, there was a push for some industrial development along the lower Roanoke River. Environmentalists argued against the development because of the negative impact it would have on the river. Those in favor of the plant argued that because of the high volume of water flowing down the Roanoke and because water quality was well above minimum government standards there was “room to pollute.” I could not believe someone actually had the audacity to make that statement. For too long we have relied on technology to fix our mistakes. This is an arrogant, misguided line of thinking that we will all pay the price for in the end if we continue down this path.

Contrary to what corporate America would like us to believe “dilution is NOT the solution to pollution.”

Water is the life blood of this planet and clean water is a right we should all enjoy in this country. We should not be held hostage by corporate interests, especially if the laws and environmental impact studies were tainted by political pressure from appointees whose loyalties lie with large corporations. This is not about being conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. Clean water is necessary for our very existence, and we should all band together to demand passage of these 2 bills, regardless of what party is in power. The only thing our representatives in Washington have done collectively is destroy our trust. It is high time they get the message that they represent us too, not just corporate America.

For more information on:
S 696

Carl Galie is a North Carolina photographer who left his home in the West Virginia coalfields in 1986 to follow a dream. For the last 15 years Carl has devoted his work to conservation issues. Working with organizations like Roanoke River Partners, The Roanoke River Basin Association, and The North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Carl’s photographs of the Roanoke River basin have helped protect and preserve that region since 1995.

He is currently documenting the vanishing beauty of coal country, focusing his attention on the devastating affect mountaintop removal of coal is having on our nation’s water resources.

* Text and photos copyright Carl Galie