Mountaintop Mining: The Good, Bad & Ugly

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APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, W. Va. -- The United States is known as the Saudi Arabia of coal, with over 50 percent of our electricity generated by this abundant natural resource.

Coal also generates tremendous controversy.  Much of the debate centers not on pollution, but getting the coal out of the ground.

Click the player to watch the report from CBN News Reporter Chuck Holton followed by Gordon Robertson's comments on the survival of America's coal industry.

It's springtime in the Appalachian Mountains, and with the temperatures warming up and the leaves on the trees, it's easy to see why this state's motto is "Almost Heaven."

But beauty won't put food on the table for the mountaineers who call this area home - that takes jobs, and around here, that means mining coal.

Coal mining has a rich history in the Appalachia that continues to this day -- providing more than 70,000 direct, higher paying jobs in West Virginia.

Today, those jobs face an uncertain future. Enviromental groups are lobbying the Obama administration to crack down on some of the practices essential to getting the coal out of the ground. one of the main targets IS the practice of mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop Removal Rarely Practiced Now

Jimmy Cook is with Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal company in the U.S. He points out that mountaintop removal is rarely practiced anymore.

"Basically one of the things the public doesn't know is that mountaintop mining basically doesn't exist now," Cook explained. "All these permits are what we call AOC permits - Approximate Original Contour.  Which means when we mine out here, we have to put the mountain back within 50 feet."

His miners scrape away the soil to get at seams of coal underneath. But once that's done, the mountain must be painstakingly rebuilt, then re-seeded with grass and trees. But sometimes, land owners have other plans.

"Whether it's a flume, a ditch or a pond, when you go back to the landowner and say 'I'll put this back the way it was,' and they'll tell you, 'no, I want that road there, I want that pond, because me and my grandkids go fishing in that pond now,'" he said.

"Nine times out of ten, they want you to leave it there, because at the end of the day it's left better than it was to start with." Cook continued.

But that's not the only opinion. Long time resident Judy Bonds helps oversee Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization that opposes mountaintop removal.

"They're creating moonscapes out of mountains that were once productive," she said. "And how blasphemous to say we can do a better job than God."

"Below mountaintop removal sites, there are discharges that deform fish, and basically we're looking at science as well as common sense," she continued. "We've never had any problem with our drinking water. "

Elementary School Located Next to Controversial Coal Mine

Children attend Marsh Fork Elementary, located right next to a controversial coal mine.

"My husband working in the coal mines allows me to stay at home taking care of my children," said Mrs. Skaggs.

"West Virginia provides fifty percent of the nation's electricity, and the people that are against coal mining, I think they should turn their lights off, move somewhere else."

But some environmentalists are doing just the opposite - moving into the area to protest the mines. That includes Mike Roselle, who came here from Montana to start Climate Ground Zero.

"I think if you look in North America, this is really one of the most egregious ways that we get our coal," he said. "And it comes at a very very high price, not only because we lose the mountains and our forests, but they bury the streams and they are producing a lot of toxic waste."

His group's protests take a strong activist approach including trespassing on mine property and civil disobedience.

"We've had five protests over the last six weeks where we have entered the blasting area where Massey is blowing up the rocks," Roselle said. "So we've been trying to physically block them from doing that."

These kinds of protests are drawing criticism from the coal companies and residents alike, who point out that Roselle helped found an organization that led to the Earth Liberation Front, labeled by the FBI as one of America's most active and destructive domestic terrorist groups.

To some, one man's environmental crusader is another man's eco-terrorist. But to the people here the bigger issue what effect this dispute will have on jobs in the region.

"If valley fills are being targeted, then that could have a serious detrimental impact to all types of coal mining," said West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection's Randy Huffman.

"In west Virginia, quite frankly, with our terrain, if we're going to have a future economy after coal, we need to be able to use the coal mining practices that are taking place today in order to create developable land…and in order to create flat land, you need valley fills," he explained.

Strip Mined in the 1980's, But The Land Recovered

One mountain top was strip mined in the 1980's, and back then, there were far fewer regulations as to the kind of reclamation that had to be done once the coal had been extracted. And yet the land has recovered remarkably well, and the farmers who grow hay and cattle on this mountain are pretty happy with how it turned out.

Dave Hutchison farms this mountain.

"The environmentalists get all bent out of shape saying they're burying our streams," Hutchinson said. "Well, I'm not the smartest fella, but even I know you can't stop water - and when they reclaimed this mountain, it actually improved the quality of the runoff because they put in these ponds and controlled the drainage."

"I love this area, and don't ever want to live nowhere else," he continued.

That is one thing almost everyone here agrees on.

"I would like to think that we have a future, and when I see what's going on right now I'm really concerned that we don't have a future," Roselle said.

"We have about 240 employees," Cook explained. "Every one of these guys live right here. They love this land. They'll tell you, they love the land, they love to hunt and fish, and they know what we do to be stewards of the land, to take care of it and do the right thing."

*Originally aired April 23, 2009.

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CBN News
Chuck Holton

Chuck Holton

CBN News Reporter

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