Strip mining draws attention in Appalachians Environmentalists contend that legal oversight is faltering

September 10, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBINE

CUMBERLAND GAP, Tenn. - Against the objections of many area residents, the National Park Service and environmentalists, the state of Kentucky has granted a permit for a 623-acre strip mine atop nearby Mingo Mountain, which lies in the middle of the view from the national historical park.

"The Pinnacle is situated so people can go there and see the land pretty much the way Daniel Boone saw it, and I guarantee you there were no strip mines out there when Boone was here," said Don Barger, southeast regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association in Norris, Tenn.

To stop the mine, Barger's organization has joined the National Park Service and the nearby city of Middlesboro, Ky., in filing an unusual court challenge: They have sued to preserve the view.

The controversy reflects renewed concern over coal mining practices nationwide.

West Virginia hard hit

West Virginia has been especially hard hit by the surge in mountaintop removal mining, which also is being used in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania. With scores of mountaintops stripped and leveled off already, coal field residents in West Virginia are experiencing unprecedented flooding, water pollution and other problems.

"It's not just a West Virginia issue; it is happening everywhere. We still have some controls in place here, but it is amazing how quickly a state monitoring program can decline, particularly when the federal inspectors are not out in the field," said FitzGerald.

Mine operators contend leveling off a mountaintop isn't necessarily a bad thing in the undulating terrain of coal country.

"Mountaintop mining has created much-needed flatland in areas like eastern Kentucky where they have tremendous problems finding level land to build on. There is a dire need for it," said Bill Caylor, vice president and general counsel of the Kentucky Coal Association.

"The purists may say it is destroying Mother Nature's landscape, but you have to balance that with common sense," he added. "This land can now be used for industrial sites and subdivisions and airports and schools."

But Chris Ledvina, chairman of the National Museum of Coal Mining in West Frankfort, Ill., said there has to be a balance between America's hunger for fossil fuels and the need to protect other natural resources, including the beauty of the land.

'Never look the same'

"Even a fully reclaimed mountaintop removal site will never look the same. It may have no pollutant runoff, it may be stable and it may even have trees, but it will no longer look like a mountain top. It will be flat. It's like a person with a missing tooth. It's visible as hell," he said.

When the Kentucky Department for Surface Mining issued the )) permit for the strip mine atop Mingo Mountain, it ignored the interests of the National Park Service as well as federal laws that prohibit coal mines that might have an "adverse impact" on public park lands, Barger said.

In 1977, after a series of deaths and environmental disasters in coal-mining country, Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to protect coal field residents and their environment from destructive mining practices individual states were not effectively dealing with.

The law created the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, which opened field offices throughout coal mining regions to make sure state mining inspectors enforced federal regulations.

The groundbreaking law and the oversight it provided resulted in greatly improved mining practices and a level playing field for mining companies. Among other things, it required operators to return mined areas to a natural state by restoring top soil, grasses, trees and other vegetation in strip mine and deep mine areas.

But two decades later, environmentalists say the law's effectiveness has been greatly diminished because it has not been updated to deal with highly destructive modern mining techniques and because budget cuts have weakened its enforcement powers.

Increasingly, mining companies are granted waivers from regulations requiring them to restore the land they mine in such a way that the land can never be returned to its previous state, critics said.

"Today you have some in Congress saying there is no more need for federal oversight in mining because the states have matured, but then you look at the problems in the states and you realize mining companies are every bit, if not more, cutthroat today than they were in 1977," said Kentucky environmentalist Tom FitzGerald, a Frankfort lawyer who helped write the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Gary Asher, owner of Appolo Fuels, the company granted the permit to strip mine Mingo Mountain, did not return phone calls.

Carl Campbell, commissioner of Kentucky's Department for Surface Mining, would not discuss the Cumberland Gap controversy because of the lawsuit, but he noted he too is sometimes frustrated with a federal law that lacks "detailed guidance for the states."

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