The Cost of Coal: Mountaintop Mining Controversy

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Coal has been a major part of the consciousness of the industrialized world for centuries, from Charles Dickens to DH Lawrence. In 2002, Americans watched and worried over the fate of men trapped far beneath the surface in a coal mine — it is the stuff of old legends and nightmares. But as much as coal seems the stuff of the past, it is the fuel of the present — and the future.

This 2002 episode of NOW With Bill Moyers investigated the role of coal in the United States and the world. At the time, US coal production was up and prices were down. Projections by the International Energy Agency showed coal’s share of energy production growing, and THE ECONOMIST labeled it “Environmental Enemy No. 1.”

Moyers ends the show with an essay on the birth of the Freedom of Information Act and what has come of it under President Bush.




BILL MOYERS: It is hands down the triumphant story of the summer: the rescue of those nine coal miners trapped two hundred and forty feet below ground. All of us cheered and many wept as they came up and out of the ground, to be greeted by family and friends. But we were reminded all over again of our uneasy alliance with King Coal.

Coal is our largest supply of fossil fuel and it feeds the economy. But coal exacts a filthy price for the energy we get from it. Burning coal to generate electricity produces fine particles that are a big public-health problem. And just getting the coal in the first place can be costly, too – a threat not only to workers below the ground but to the environment above it. Now’s Brenda Breslauer has our first report.


WILLARD KELLY, WEST VIRGINIA RESIDENT: They can just look at this water and see what they’re being deprived of. This water used to be pure – they could drink it.

BRENDA BRESLAUER: These streams in the mountains of West Virginia are in jeopardy — in danger of disappearing — because of coal mining.

BEN STOUT, PROFESSOR, WHEELING JESUIT UNIVERSITY: There’s still water coming out, but it’s not the same quality that it was before.

BRESLAUER: To understand why, you have to go up in a plane to get a bird’s eye view of the mountains.

JOE LOVETT, LAWYER: You’re seeing I think devastation on a scale unprecedented in this country. The sheer destruction is mind boggling. The loss of the streams and forests…

BILL RANEY, PRESIDENT, WEST VIRGINIA COAL ASSOCIATION: Does it harm it? No, we don’t think it does. Temporary disruptions, yes, you do have that. It’s inevitable that you’d have that. Progress represents that and I feel like mining a mineral to make electricity for this nation is clearly progress.

BRESLAUER: Coal means power. It drove the steam engines and furnaces of the industrial revolution. Now it supplies more than half our electricity. So when you flip on a light.. or turn on a computer… chances are the energy you use began with this mineral mined from a mountain.

This is mountaintop removal mining… blasting the tops off of mountains to reach the coal underneath. Valuable seams of coal are embedded in mountains like layers of frosting within a cake. Coal companies say that to get to the layers near the top, it’s safer and more cost efficient to remove the mountain top than to mine underground. Once the rock surrounding the coal is blasted off, in what is known in the industry as “shoot and shove,” the excess rock and earth is dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below, often burying the streams that run through them.

Mountaintop removal mining has been around for 30 years but not until the 1990’s when giant earth moving machines replaced miners did the size of the waste piles suddenly swell. Surface mining now provides more than one third of West Virginia’s coal.

But one of the hidden costs of our hunger for coal may be the effect of mountaintop removal…on our thirst for water.

JOAN MULHERN, SENIOR LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL, EARTHJUSTICE: People should care about what’s happening in Appalachia. The people should be very worried about what’s going to happen in their own neighborhood.

BRESLAUER: What’s happening here in Appalachia could happen elsewhere because of a little noticed event in Washington, D.C.

JOAN MULHERN: What the Bush Administration did–, late on Friday, May 3rd is sign into law one of the most far reaching and destructive changes to Clean Water Act regulations in 30 years.

BRESLAUER: Joan Mulhern is the Senior Legislative Counsel for Earth Justice, a not-for-profit environmental law firm.

JOAN MULHERN: The Bush Administration changed the rules in a way that will allow any industry in the country to apply for a permit to dump any kind of industrial waste into waters, burying them forever

BRESLAUER: The Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, signed the new rule, then issued a press release describing the new rule change as a “clarification” of the Clean Water Act.

Environmentalists disagree. They say it was done to keep big industry happy.

JOE LOVETT: Everybody knew the rule change was coming because it was something the coal industry very badly wanted. Something the Bush Administration we all knew would be willing to give the industry.

BRESLAUER: Attorney Joe Lovett may have unwittingly set the chain of events in motion that led to this year’s rule change. In 1998, he and the D.C. based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice filed the first case arguing that mountaintop removal was destroying streams in violation of mining laws and the Clean Water Act.

LOVETT: When we first brought this action, I thought that it would be as simple as pointing out to the government that the law wasn’t being enforced. It’s turned out to be far from simple. The government instead of enforcing the law has done everything it can to contort the law and to, to misconstrue it to allow practices that continue to devastate and I was surprised by that.

In this file photo, a mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)

In this photo, a mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)

BRESLAUER: Lovett is executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. He says that under Republican and Democratic Administrations alike, the government had failed to enforce the law.

LOVETT: The Clean Water Act is supposed to protect the integrity of the nation’s waters, not destroy it. And I can’t think of any practice that’s more destructive than filling streams beneath hundreds of millions of tons of mining waste.

BILL RANEY, PRESIDENT, WEST VIRGINIA COAL ASSOCIATION: You know, the use of waste, first of all, that’s a misnomer and I hate for that to spread all across the nation and everybody use waste. And you got this picture of having a landfill out there, and that’s not true. It’s dirt and rock. It’s just like the dirt and rock that’s in this yard.

BRESLAUER: Bill Raney, President of the West Virginia Coal Association, says that not only is it legal to dump the excess rock and dirt from blasting into the valleys, it’s practical.

RANEY: We had to move the dirt and rock to get the coal out of the ground.

BRESLAUER: After all, he says, it’s the same rocks and dirt on top of the mountains as below on the ground, they are just moving them around, the way one does when building a road.

RANEY: Well I can’t for the life of me figure out the differences when I build an interstate or a road in West Virginia or Kentucky, and I have more dirt that I need, then I put it in a low place. I put it in a hollow if you will.

BRESLAUER: But all the dirt that’s being placed in the hollows of southern West Virginia is in fact changing the landscape and streams. It’s also changing lives of the people who live in coal country. Most of the mountains in West Virginia’s coal counties are owned by large land holding companies, with communities nestled in the valleys below. When the land companies lease their mountains to the coal companies to mine, the excess fill can end up right above people’s homes.

WILLARD KELLY, RESIDENT: These creeks used to be plum full of small fish and minnows.




WILLARD KELLY: They’re gone.

EVELYN KELLY: Above us there, they have a strip job at the mountain top removal. We get the effect down here.

BRESLAUER: Willard and Evelyn Kelley have lived at the top of Cow Creek Hollow for the past 39 years, raising five children and now ten grandchildren.

WILLARD KELLY: So they’re the third generation here.

BRESLAUER: Willard made a living from mining coal, but when mountaintop removal began in 1989 above their hollow, he and Evelyn found their lives turned upside down.

WILLARD KELLY: The blasting was so heavy when they was close behind the house, which was a half a mile away, they cracked the sheetrock in our house, our cinderblock foundation, our chandeliers. Our doors would fly open. We was eating spaghetti on the table and the spaghetti and the bowls dashed out of the plate onto the table.

BRESLAUER: Now the Kelleys say the remnants of the mining, the fill material in their valley, has ruined the creek on their land.

WILLARD: We used to drink this water. Every time you and I and the 5 children go walking on Sunday we’d drink out of the creek. All seven of us: my wife, myself and the five children. We drank just like this. Just take it to your mouth and drink it.

BRESLAUER: But not anymore?

WILLARD KELLY: No, no, no. And it’s not just the creek they’re angry about.

EVELYN KELLY: My sons when they were teenagers used to hunt these mountains. There’s no top of the mountain squirrel hunting anymore. So they’re just taking it all away. They’re just taking it community by community by community. Whole communities are being just moved out for the sake of coal.

BRESLAUER: That’s what happened in more than a dozen West Virginia communities where families have been displaced. Some have left because of blasting, others have been bought out by the coal companies, accepting what they consider to be a good deal. Still others were evicted outright by land holding companies.

The town of Dehue where Willard Kelly worked once had hundreds of families, churches, grocery stores, even a movie theater.

Blair West Virginia’s population plunged from just over 700 residents in 1979 to a population of 60 after a coal company bought out most of its families. And it’s happening today in Mud, West Virginia one county north of the Kelley family.

THERMAN CAUDILL, LAST RESIDENT, MUD, WEST VIRGINIA: No business whatsoever in here now. We had, we’ve had several grocery stores, two or three. We had a nice two-room school down there. I taught in it the whole time it was there.

BRESLUAER: Seventy-five-year-old Therman Caudill, a former school teacher, has lived in the town of Mud all his life.

CAUDILL: I taught all the subjects in all the grades.

BRESLAUER: Sixty families have all moved away.

CAUDILL: I’m the last person left that owns property here. Nobody else owns any in here now. Clear down to two miles down the road.

BRESLAUER: And the last man standing is giving up after he was told the next valley fill would come right up behind his home.

CAUDILL: That’s why we’ve decided just go ahead and move out if we can find us a place.

But you know they’re just tearing these mountains all to pieces. I just don’t like it you know, but they say that’s progress.

BRESLUAER: But the coal companies say in all, mountaintop removal effects only 1% of the land in West Virginia so far and that they do their best to restore active mining sites.

RANEY: And if you are going to show an active site, I ask you to please show a reclaimed site. And because it’s substantially different.

BRESLAUER: Coal companies “reclaim” mining sites by sowing grass and planting trees and introducing wildlife to the areas.

And, if the company commits to develop the site for a public purpose like a factory or park, they can leave the land flat. The companies say mountainous West Virginia needs leveled land to attract business. They showcase projects that have been built on flat land for a public purpose like a school or a jail.

VIDEO FROM MASSEY ENERGY COMPANY: You’ve just seen several mountaintop mining sites.

BRESLAUER: But environmentalists point out that those public projects represent a mere two percent of the land that’s been mined.

LOVETT: Those are very small developments on very large strip mines. Don’t forget, some of these strip mine complexes are more than 10 and even 15 square miles in size. Put those together and you get hundreds of square miles. There are a few projects and those projects are appropriate.

BRESLAUER: Here mines with valley fills have left a 30-year-old footprint on three of the state’s top coal-producing counties. If proposed valley fill permits are approved, the footprint will grow larger and more streams will be lost in its path.

LOVETT: The size of the valley fills have gotten significantly bigger in the last 10 or 12 years. And the impacts on the communities have been greater.

BRESLAUER: So Lovett and a team of lawyers representing a grassroots organization and residents living near future mine sites, went to court to stop coal companies from dumping debris into streams. Federal Judge Charles Haden heard the case.

Judge Haden even took a fact-finding trip in the field to observe mountaintop removal first-hand, Haden, a Republican appointee, then ruled that valley fills which covered large streams were illegal. His decision, Rendered in 1999 banned future mining projects that would fill larger streams. It created a firestorm. After coal companies threatened that all mining in the state would stop, causing severe job loss, angry miners marched on the Courthouse, surrounding it with trucks.

CHARLES FARLEY, COAL TRUCK DRIVER: It’s the backbone of West Virginia. Without coal mines I wouldn’t be working, I don’t believe.

We do this for the people and to keep the lights on. Coal keeps the lights on.

BRESLAUER: The coal industry fought the judge’s decision and it was overturned on appeal on jurisdictional grounds. But part of the case was settled in what the citizens considered a victory. For the first time in the decades of mountaintop mining and dumping, the government agreed to study its environmental effects. The study has been kept under raps, but this April Lovett and his team obtained a preliminary copy under the Freedom of Information Act.

LOVETT: I was surprised frankly that the Bush administration turned those documents over but I wasn’t surprised by the results of them.

BRESLAUER: Here’s what the government found to be the impact of mountaintop removal.

…”stream segments located downstream of valley fills impaired.” “significant increases in conductivity, hardness, sulfate and selenium (a metal that is toxic at high concentrations), and 560 miles (of streams) eliminated.

BRESLAUER: The study also found that, “Restricting valley fills will increase the price of coal by only $1 per ton” which would translate to “only a few cents” per month for customers.

BEN STOUT, PROFESSOR, WHEELING JESUIT UNIVERSITY: The forest will never return ever the way that it was to these sites. It’s impossible.

BRESLAUER: Dr. Ben Stout, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Wheeling Jesuit University, contribute research to the EPA report. He says the mountaintop removal mining is damaging the environment in a way that cannot be repaired. STOUT: It’s wholesale ecosystem destruction. You’re basically burying this whole perfectly functional eco-system in order just to achieve waste disposal and that seems like a shame to me.

BRESLAUER: Dr. Stout was also an expert witness for the plaintiff’s case against the government on mountaintop removal.

STOUT: We’re starting to see serious water quality degradation, impairment of biological communities and much less a major loss of our forest ecosystems.

BRESLAUER: But the coal industry says that’s not true at all.

RANEY: And we have fishery biologists that suggest that he’s not correct.

BRESLAUER: The coal companies have commissioned their own studies and they claim their data show the environment is not being altered significantly.

RANEY: The use of the stream, the volume of water, the chemistry of the water. All of that is being preserved to pre-mining conditions.

And you do change the environment. And I’m not suggesting you’re improving on it. I’m not sure you can improve on what the good lord put here. And we feel like the impact is absolutely minimized.

BRESLAUER: That’s not what the residents in the valley think. They worry that with the removal of trees and soil above their homes, they will be more vulnerable than ever to floods.

Just two weeks ago, the worst fears of the community in Winding Shoals Hollow were confirmed when heavy rains caused the sediment pond From the valley fill above the hollow to overflow, knocking homes off foundations and washing cars downstream.

REPORTER: What did you lose?

RESIDENT: Everything.

BRESLAUER: After major flooding a year ago killed seven and left over 1000 homeless, the Governor ordered a study to determine what caused the flooding:

MICHAEL CALLAGHAN, CABINET SECRETARY, WEST VIRGINIA DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: What we decided we would look at is ask the question does mining impact flooding, and does timbering impact flooding? And the answer is yes to both.

BRESLAUER: But in this case, the company said it was an accident.

As flooding becomes more common, residents are increasingly uneasy about living near valley fills. Yet valley fills had been growing in size for much of the last decade. It was one of the grounds for Lovett’s lawsuit.

LOVETT: I really, you know, naively believed that we would just go to court, point out what was wrong and that the United States government would fix it. But it hasn’t.

BRESLAUER: The reason, environmental advocates say, is politics.

PRESIDENT BUSH (FROM TAPE): I want to develop coal here in America.

BRESLAUER: Environmentalists believe that Bush courted coal during the election and now it’s payback time.

PRESIDENT BUSH (FROM TAPE): I’m glad I came back to West Virginia.

BRESLAUER: Many credit West Virginia’s key five electoral votes with winning him the election.

PRESIDENT BUSH (FROM TAPE): I would have come back whether I won or lost.

BRESLAUER: Do you think George Bush won the election partly because of coal?

RANEY: I think he did. I think he did. I think he won the election because of a very realistic approach on natural resource industries.

And it was this spring that the Bush administration came to the coal industry’s rescue, according to environmental groups, issuing the new rule change before Judge Haden’s anticipated decision in West Virginia.

JOAN MULHERN, SENIOR LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL, EARTHJUSTICE: In order to keep this out of court they changed the rule to sort of knock out the lawsuits.

BENJAMIN GRUMBLES, DEPUTY ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR, EPA: What we are doing, is we are clarifying and strengthening the regulation so that it makes it very clear that this is subject to a permit process.

BRESLAUER: Ben grumbles is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for water at the EPA. He says the new rule doesn’t really change anything.

GRUMBLES: This regulatory clarification is not a significant change from the current practices that have been carried out over the last several decades by the permitting agency.

JOAN MULHERN, SENIOR LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL, EARTHJUSTICE: That’s like saying we should help bank robbers to stop breaking the law by repealing the laws against bank robbery. Then it wouldn’t be illegal anymore. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it not harmful.

They changed the words that were part of the rule. They took the words that said you cannot use waste and they replaced it with words that said, acceptable fill material now includes coal mining waste, other excavation waste, hard rock mining waste, construction and demolition debris, plastics, how can they say it’s not a change? The rule does not say the same thing that it used to say.

BRESLAUER: Less than a week after Washington’s new rule was announced, Judge Haden rendered his own decision in a second suit brought by Lovett and team. He said valley fills in larger streams must stop. Furthermore, he said, the Bush administration was wrong to change the Clean Water Act. He called it an “obvious perversity” of the law and said it “the rule change was designed simply for the benefit of the mining industry and its employees.”

GRUMBLES: Well, we respectfully disagree with Judge Haden’s characterization of the motivations and the impact of the regulatory change.

BRESLAUER: The U.S. government and the mining industry have once again appealed, but for the moment, new mountaintop removal permits are halted in West Virginia and Kentucky. In the rest of the country, however, the new rule still stands, leaving water vulnerable to mining and dumping.

WILLARD KELLY: So if there’s enough money in it, enough profit in it, then the poor people has to pay for it. But down the road, the rich people will have to pay for it because where are they gonna get their water from? They’re drinking the same water that we have to drink.

EVELYN KELLY: Our children and our grandchildren, they’re gonna inherit all this. And there has to be something left besides a moonscape mountain and polluted water.

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