The Dernogalizer

June 26, 2009

Subcommittee Hearing on Mountaintop Removal

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 1:05 am
Tags: , , ,

I’ve written a couple of columns on the atrocities of mountaintop removal, which can be found here and here.  Of recent, media and actions surrounding mountaintop removal have  escalated from climbing a dragline to a massive protest just a couple days ago.  How fitting then, there we have the first Senate subcommittee hearing ever on the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining.  Even better than the Senator holding this hearing is Ben Cardin of Maryland(I live in Maryland).  With this being too good to miss, and with me conveniently being in DC anyways because of climate bill-related activities, why not sit in on this firsthand?  It turned out to be quite interesting, I want to highlight a few details from my attendance below.

The hearing was slated to begin at 3:30, so I thought I’d show up at 2:30 to get a good spot in line.  It turns out it would’ve been better to arrive at 10:30!  When I showed up there was a line of 50-75 people already, so I had to go all the way to the back, which made my chances of getting into the hearing room seem pretty poor.  Most of the people in the line were mountaintop removal activists, however in front of me were 3 men that worked for the coal industry.  Soon thereafter, a large group of pro-coal supporters with shirts reading “friends of coal” showed up.  I would say the line grew by 30 or so people.  These people appeared to be guided/led by coal industry lobbyists in suits.

Then at about 3:20 a staffer came out and declared that there was no way everyone was going to fit into the room, and people near the back of the line should go to the overflow room.  Although some people around me left, I stayed in line a little longer just to see how discouraged the people in front of me got.  When they let people in, I wasn’t anywheres near the front when the room filled up.  However, when everyone in front of me asked if waiting would be a good idea, the staffer told them “very little chance any of you will get in”, and this caused everyone in front of me(a good 30-40 people) to leave.  Suddenly I was at the front of the line, where I was told I stood no chance.  About 15 minutes later someone left the hearing room, and I was in.  Slick I know.

I missed the first panelist who must’ve gone pretty fast, but he next panel had 4 speakers on it.  It included organizer Maria Gunnoe, who famously won the  Goldman Environmental Award, and has a very great story.  Others on the panel were Dr. Margaret Palmer who worked in the Chesapeake Environmental Laboratory University Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, the Deputy Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the cabinet secretary for West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection(DEP) Randy Hauffman.

The first speaker I heard was Randy Hauffman of  DEP.  Now, DEP basically works as hard to undermine environmental protection and laws in West Virginia as the Bush EPA did to undermine those nationwide.  Hauffman was pretty vague and contradictory, saying on one hand people had the right to clean water and that government had an obligation to provide that right, and then talking about the need for mountaintop removal for mining jobs and economic growth.  He also indicated he’d like the EPA to back off of West Virginia with the Clean Water Act since when it was passed it was delegated to the states to decide how to implement(or in DEP’s case, dodge).

Next was organizer Maria Gunnoe, who was by far the best speaker who really put a face to the issue, and made Hauffman’s arguments look like a joke(yeah I’m biased).  Really though you could tell why Gunnoe was worthy of an award and was an environmental leader in her community.  She spoke very boldly and didn’t hold anything back, talking about mountaintop removal mining as providing “temporary jobs and temporary energy”, and how people quite frankly can’t live around this kind of practice because of the blasting, the chokingly poor air quality, and the terrible floods.  Also, since the soil is so messed up, there’s no filtration of stormwater runoff into the watersheds, which along with all the coal pollution and sludge makes the water pollution terrible.  Gunnoe’s closing statement was the highlight, declaring that “the coal will run out, we’ll be left with no water, no air, no jobs, and no energy”.  I looked over at the DEP guy and he looked like someone had just handed him a pink slip.  Gunnoe got a standing ovation, and I felt compelled to join in the clapping.

After a short recess, Dr. Palmer was next and she discussed in further detail the impact on the water quality, and lent a very credible voice to the science around the issue.  Palmer said what we all know except in greater detail than I can recall here.  She said the environmental impacts are substantial and permanent, a very strong “I would certainly not let my children play in the streams”.  When asked by Senator Cardin what could be done to restore the watersheds after mountaintop removal mining, Palmer said there was no scientific evidence the impacts on water quality could be reversed, except for geologic time passing(ouch).

I suppose I must’ve missed the testimony of the Tennessee Deputy Commissioner, since Cardin started questioning the panelists.  A couple of noteworthy questions was Cardin asking the West Virginia regulator what could be done to preserve the headwaters and streams.  Hauffman didn’t have much of an answer, and it pretty much summed up to ‘we’ve been doing better in managing this issue, we’re for science being the driver, solutions are sought, and more money for research is needed’.  Basically, cutting through the bs the answer was “we can’t”.  The ranking Republican member Lamar Alexander who was the only other Senator there asked the Tennessee Commissioner whether or not coal mining practices in Tennessee involved mountaintop removal.  I’m not sure how true this is(perhaps I misheard), but the response was that this had not been done for the last 10-15 years.  He was also asked whether or not Tennessee companies could dump mining waste into the valley fills, and he answered no.  The implied message was that a coal producing state of Tennessee could manage just fine without mountaintop removal, while West Virginia was saying it needed to continue doing it.  When the Commissioner was asked whether or not the Federal law should be changed and applied to all the states, the Tennessee Commissioner said yes.  The last noteworthy question was Cardin asking Hauffman from DEP what kind of economic development he was referring to when defending mountaintop removal.  Hauffman was once again very dodgy and unconvincing, saying that they’ve been slow at redeveloping the areas they’ve mined, but are getting better, and will be working harder on both redevelopment and on restoring the land by planting trees.  It wasn’t very confidence inspiring.

All in all, this was a good hearing with good questions, some insightful testimony, and I liked the fact that the activists got into the hearing room, and all the coal supporters got stuck in the overflow room where no one could see them.  I’m also very appreciative of the fact that my Senator Ben Cardin is leading on this issue.  He is very good on environmental and energy issues, and very smart.  He’s also found a way to get bi-partisan support from Republican Lamar Alexander on his legislation to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to prevent the dumping of “fill material”, otherwards known as mountain mining waste, into the streams and valleys below.  This would be a big deal.  I wish him the best, and I’m proud he’s a Maryland Senator.



  1. […] Cross-Posted from: HERE […]

    Pingback by Subcommittee Hearing on Mountaintop Removal « It’s Getting Hot In Here — June 26, 2009 @ 1:08 am | Reply

  2. Hey Matt, this hearing sounded really successful (if you’re on our side). We should consider taking up lobbying against mountaintop removal as a side effort to our main efforts, this fall. Fortunately and unfortunately, this practice is so bad and destructive (unfortunately), that the proponents of it only have weak defenses to social and environmentally-concerned people’s attacks (fortunately).

    Comment by Kenny Frankel — June 26, 2009 @ 10:50 am | Reply

    • Hey Ken, good to see you’re reading. We can talk about this when we meet up. It’s a legitimate suggestion and at the least we should see if we can have an on-campus event that educates people about the issue.

      Comment by Matt Dernoga — June 26, 2009 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

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