By Carl Galie
According to the EPA website, “The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment – air, water, and land – upon which life depends.” In theory this sounds all well and good, but in practice it is another story. Every time there is a change in the Whitehouse, the EPA is required to play ball and enforce the environmental laws of the land as the current administration sees fit. This was never more apparent than in the Bush years when it appeared that the EPA lost its power to protect public health and became almost invisible in the coalfields of the Appalachians.
I recently had the opportunity to attend an EPA hearing in Charlotte, NC on coal ash regulation. For eight hours I sat and listened to testimony from passionate witnesses on both sides of the argument. Opponents against coal ash regulation gave compelling testimony about the potential for job loss in the construction industry if coal ash was to be considered a toxic material. There was also testimony in favor of regulation from everyone from scientists who offered facts about the toxicity of coal ash to concerned residents who live near impoundments, and told stories about health issues brought on because of living near a coal ash site. As I drove home from the hearing and thought about the compelling arguments from both sides, I was left with one burning question: What about the science?
If coal ash was as toxic as the scientists presented it, and they had cold hard facts to back their research, what was the point of these hearings? It seemed like a no brainer to me if the EPA’s mission is to protect public health, then regulate coal ash. Unfortunately it is not that easy. We are a nation of laws, and according to the law, public hearings must be held before enacting something like coal ash regulation. So I left the hearings wondering if the old adage that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” applied here. Was this how environmental regulation worked? Whoever makes the most noise wins? What about the science?
According to the Ilovemountains.org website, “Last April, the Environmental Protection Agency took a bold step toward curtailing mountaintop removal coal mining when it issued draft guidelines that reduced the practice of valley fills — which bury streams and poison Appalachia’s water sources — unless they met a high standard. The guidelines were just one of a series of draft rules issued that day that would reduce the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining. And every day since then, Big Coal has been arguing that the rules are too costly and need to be overturned.” The EPA is currently accepting public comment on its restrictions on mountaintop removal and we will soon know if the EPA will be allowed to rely on good science or if congress will once again interfere.
Another example of political interference can be found in the introduction of H.R.6113: The Electricity Reliability Protection Act of 2010. The purpose of this bill according to those who introduced it is “to protect electricity reliability by prohibiting the use of funds for carrying out certain policies and procedures that adversely affect domestic coal mining operations, and for other purposes.” Translation, it would cut off funding to the EPA for doing their job in the coal fields. Bills like this show the power and influence the coal industry has over our elected officials. You either play ball with the coal industry or loose. Fear tactics work.
With the shift in the balance of power in Washington, the next two years could be very challenging for the EPA without our support. On November 4, I attended an EPA public meeting regarding the Ore Knob mine superfund site in Ore Knob, NC. The meeting was to inform the public about the assessment, cleanup, and upcoming activities at the site. Ore Knob mine was a copper mine that operated from the 1850’s until 1962. While this was not a MTR site, this mine is located in the New River Basin, and many of the water problems the community is facing near this mine could possibly be repeated in the coalfields. I decided to attend this meeting in order to better understand what was happening at this old mine, and learn what the estimated cost of cleanup was since this scenario could repeat itself over and over in coal country as MTR sites are mined out and closed. What I heard was both startling and heartbreaking.
The EPA concluded that high concentrations of manganese and cadmium were contaminating many of the wells and springs near the old mine site and they had determined which direction the contamination was spreading. The immediate cost of doing a quick fix to slow down the pollution was over $7,000,000. When asked how long it would take to find a permanent solution for the problem, the EPA told the community they had no idea because it could take years once a solution was decided upon since they would have to wait for funding approval. Since most of the property owners attending the meeting were elderly, my guess is that a permanent solution will not occur during their lifetime because once again their fate was in the hands of politicians who hold the EPA purse strings.
As I left the meeting, I began to think about the cost of remediation for this 47-acre site and wondered what the cost could be 50 years from now if an MTR site like the Hobet 21 mine in West Virginia, which is over 10,000 acres, began contaminating the water in surrounding communities. The cost would be astronomical. Who would end up paying for the cleanup? The American taxpayer is funding the cleanup at Ore Knob.
Just to put this into perspective, I’ve attached an overlay of the Hobet 21 mine superimposed over a map of Washington, DC provided to me by ilovethemountains.org. Maybe the next time our congressmen introduce a bill to protect us from the EPA we should all think about who ultimately ends up paying for the sins of industry before buying into political fear tactics. It’s time we make congress accountable and ask them “what about the science” before allowing them to cut off any EPA funds?
Carl Galie is a North Carolina photographer who left his home in the West Virginia coalfields in 1986to 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.