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They flattened this mountaintop to find coal { January 16 2005 }

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They flattened this mountaintop to find coal - and created a wasteland

A ravaged US state is fighting back against mining bosses who backed Bush, Paul Harris reports in Charleston, West Virginia

Sunday January 16, 2005
The Observer

Maria Gunnoe sits at the top of the valley her family has called home for three generations and points to the artificial moonscape that has replaced the once wooded and rolling hills.
Above her home there now sits a huge strip mine. Two more strip mines are eating away the hills on the opposite side of the valley. 'I'm being attacked on all sides,' she said.

This is not ordinary strip mining. This is mountaintop removal - activists dub it 'strip mining on steroids'. It is the stuff of science fiction and it is booming in the Appalachian mountains, bringing with it environmental degradation and human despair. It is fuelled by a mining industry that has paid millions of dollars into Republican campaign coffers and received in return an unprecedented relaxation of rules.

Mountaintop removal mining does exactly what it says - in order to get at thin seams of coal that lie within, like cream through the middle of a sponge cake. Millions of tons of rock are blown up, scraped away and poured into surrounding valleys, filling them to the brim. What was a mountain range is turned into a flat and almost barren desert of rock.

The streams that once flowed through the valleys around Maria Gunnoe's house lie underneath hundreds of feet of boulders. 'It breaks my heart,' she said.

All over Appalachia, a series of mountain ranges running from Pennsylvania to Georgia, there are similar stories. Already 1,200 miles of streams have been buried and 400,000 acres have been blasted away. At current rates, over the next decade 2,200 square miles of land will be affected. That is an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. In order to shift the mountaintops more than 3,000 tons of explosives are used each day.

Across Appalachia, resistance is growing. The Coal River Mountain Watch, a group of activists in the scruffy West Virginia hamlet of Whitesville, has on the wall of its office a map of three West Virginian counties it covers. Large splodges mark the mountaintop mines. Julia Bonds, a coalminer's daughter, is the group's community outreach co-ordinator. She claims it is only because Appalachia is one of America's poorest communities that the mining is allowed. 'They deal with us by dehumanising us and calling us just hillbillies,' she said.

It is the damage to their water system that is the biggest disaster, added Bonds. The mining has been blamed for a massive increase in flash floods that wash away people's homes. It is also blamed for cancer-causing selenium in water and other pollution that has poisoned fish. West Virginians have been advised by the government that locally caught fish are too dangerous to eat more than once or twice a month.

For Gunnoe the issue is an immediate one. Since the mountains and valleys went, her property has almost been washed away. Her home is now isolated behind a deep gorge that cuts her off from any road. 'It used to be just a little stream you could step over,' she said. The stream has now cut a gully 20ft deep and 67ft wide. Gunnoe's house has lost all its value. She cannot get insurance. She knows that she will eventually have to leave.

Not only the floods are contriving to drive her out. Since she began to speak out publicly last summer, the tyres on Gunnoe's truck have been slashed, she has been verbally threatened by mineworkers, her dog has been shot and its body dumped at a shop frequented by her two children.

As she travelled with The Observer last week, a man driving a white SUV closely tailed her, its driver making an obscene gesture at her before forcing her to swerve as he overtook. But she will not be intimidated. 'They have already taken away my future,' she said. 'I guess I am just pushing the envelope to see if they take away my life.'

It was a meeting on an airport runway in August 2000 that paved the way for the mining boom in West Virginia. George W Bush met local mining executives as he prepared to fly out from the state capital, Charleston. They complained mining permits were becoming hard to get because of environmental measures. Bush said he understood their problems.

In 2002, after Bush became President, regulations governing mountaintop mining were loosened. It was as simple as changing a word. The rubble produced by scraping off mountaintops was defined as 'fill', not 'waste'. Fill can legally be dumped into valleys, waste cannot. The effect was immediate. In 2002 just three sites were approved in West Virginia. In 2003 the figure was 14.

Critics say the rule change was the payback for massive financial support given to Bush and other Republicans by the coalmining industry. In the past six years mining firms have given $9 million to Republican candidates.

James 'Buck' Harless, West Virginia's main coal baron, raised $100,000 for Bush in 2000. In 2004 he at least doubled that sum, earning the Bush Ranger title given to top fundraisers. Jack Gerard of the National Mining Association and Irl Engelhardt of mining firm Peabody earned the designation of Bush Pioneer in 2004 after giving at least $100,000 each. Bush has also brought senior mining figures into his administration, including David Lauriski, a former coalmining executive who is now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Since Lauriski took over, numerous safety and health regulations have been relaxed.

Above Blair in West Virginia towers a huge blue dragline, like a gigantic crane. It is one of the biggest vehicles on earth and locals have dubbed it Big John. A dragline can be as high as a 10-storey building. Its excavator bucket can shift the equivalent weight in rock of 40 cars in a single scoop.

Activists now fear that removing West Virginia's mountains is going to get even easier. A Reagan-era regulation forbids mining in a 100-yard 'buffer zone' around streams. The Bush administration wants to 'clarify' the rule. Coalmining executives say making mining easier means America will no longer have to rely on foreign oil reserves for its energy needs. But for people who have to live with the impact, the prospect of yet more mining is nightmarish.

'When the coal is gone, it is gone,' said Bonds, her voice rising with anger. 'Why would any sane person put all their energy in a single fuel? And they call us ignorant hillbillies.'

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