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Interview: The Scourge of Mountain Top Mining in West Virginia

A row of homes that abut a valley fill from a mountaintop removal mine on Coal Mountain, Wyoming County, West Virginia.  © 2018 Mariam Dwedar for Human Rights Watch

Over the past 30 or 40 years in the Appalachia region of the US, there’s been a rise in mountain top removal, where mining companies blast the tops off mountains to excavate the coal underneath. Mining companies detonate millions of tons of explosives and then dump waste rock into the valleys below, leading to dangerously polluted waterways and air. Researcher Sarah Saadoun talks with Amy Braunschweiger about how companies are able to do this without a plan to protect people living in the valleys from the consequences. 

Tell me more about mountaintop removal.

Today it’s done almost exclusively in southern West Virginia, but has been done in Eastern Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee and Virginia too. Scientific studies show that people living near this type of mining disproportionately experience cardiovascular disease, birth defects, and lung cancer, even after controlling for issues like poverty and obesity.

How are these health problems connected to mountaintop removal?

Exploding mountains contributes to air pollution. Air quality tests in the valleys where people live below these mines – called “hollows” in Appalachia – found a high percentage of silica, a highly toxic mineral found in rocks. The dust particles are so small, the lungs can’t filter them. When scientists injected the dust into human cells, it promoted tumor growth in one study and, in another study, it changed the way that the cells functioned in a way consistent with cardiovascular disease.

Mountaintop removal can also contaminate water. Dumping the waste rock into the valleys has buried 2,500 miles of streams, longer than the Mississippi River, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But it also has made hundreds of miles of streams highly toxic, threatening drinking water sources. People who rely on well water are especially at risk since they don’t have help monitoring and treating their water.

How many people depend on wells in Appalachia?

West Virginia’s government doesn’t make public how many people use wells. I did most of my interviews in Wyoming county, and everyone I spoke with there relied on wells. One doctor in Boone county asks all children he treats whether they rely on wells, and about 10 percent do, he said.

It’s not just wells that are at risk. Municipal water systems are required to monitor and treat their source water so they should be safe, but this is very expensive and not all municipalities do the job well. One study shows high levels of monitoring violations in municipal water systems in areas of West Virginia with mountaintop removal. Also, some contaminants that they aren’t required to treat may pose a health risk.  

What’s happening to these wells?

I spoke with a lot of families living in the hollows around the aptly named Coal Mountain, which has a huge mountaintop removal mine operated by a company that was, until recently, owned by the governor of West Virginia.

One couple I spoke with, the husband is a coal miner, have two kids. One of the kids has Down Syndrome and needed heart surgery at 6-months old. They buy water for drinking and cooking, but the mom was describing what it was like to have to bathe her children in water that is completely brown and smells so strongly of rotten eggs that when I left the house I couldn’t get the smell out of my head. The smell was so intense it was hard for me to stay in the bathroom when the shower was running.

A scientist told me that the rotten smell is from sulfates in the water turning into a gas. He explained that sulfates are a common mining contaminant and they react with bacteria and air to turn into hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that can be absorbed through the skin and by inhaling it – you don’t even have to drink it to be exposed to the contamination.

A map of mountaintop removal using satellite imagery prepared by SkyTruth, an independent organization that promotes transparency on environmental issues.  © SkyTruth

Why can’t they be put on the city water line?

That’s exactly what they want. But that’s very expensive.

Amazingly, it’s not a part of the coal company’s basic due diligence before they start mining to make sure the people living beneath the mountains are on municipal water lines. The people I interviewed said the company didn’t even meet with their communities before mining to explain the risk to their water supply, or to give them a phone number to call in case their water goes bad.

Why isn’t this regulated?

In 2016, the Obama administration enacted a rule saying coal companies need to monitor their impact on streams and restore them after they’re finished mining. 

The Obama administration also funded a two-year study from the National Academy of Scientists to go through all scientific research and access the health risks to people in Central Appalachia from mountain top removal.

The kitchen sink, discolored by iron and manganese in water, in a home near a mountaintop removal mine on Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, West Virginia. © 2018 Human Rights Watch

But the Trump administration undid this. It rolled back the regulation, citing a highly flawed study – funded by the coal industry – that basically said almost every job in the coal industry would be lost if they had to restore streams. The Trump administration also canceled the study, saying they were cancelling all studies more expensive than $100,000. We looked into this and no such other studies were cancelled at that time. In fact, the details surrounding the decision suggest that the administration was deliberately trying to keep this information from coming to light.

What do West Virginians think of this?

Many of the people I spoke with expressed feeling powerless because of the political power of the coal industry. One woman I interviewed said she has nothing against coal mining. It’s her way of life, she said, pointing to her husband’s grave, 20 feet from the front porch where we were sitting, telling me how he returned to the mines even after being injured in an accident. But at the same time, she believes that the mines polluted her water. What she wants is accountability. “If they destroy something, then they should fix it,” she said. Others were adamantly opposed to mountaintop removal not only because of the health risks, but also because of its destruction of their natural landscape and cultural heritage.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that coal is not so important that people should be expected to give up their health for it.

But does mountaintop removal bring jobs?

Ironically, surface mining, including mountain top removal, is the biggest killer of coal jobs.

Today, coal production is at the same level as the early 1980s, but the number of coal jobs has dropped by 80 percent since then. Surface mining is less labor intensive, and advances in technology and equipment allow them to rely much less on people.

When it comes to stopping government regulations, coal companies are all about “saving coal jobs.” But when it comes to cutting costs, they’re all about shedding jobs.

Source: Based on Melissa M. Ahern et al., “The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996-2003,” Environmental Research, vol. 111, 2011, p. 842. © 2018 Human Rights Watch

What do you want to see happen?

Coal companies should actually address these health risks to people rather than ignoring it. They should also pay to clean up the pollution. This shouldn’t be left up to the families, many of which have members working in these mines.

The government should reinstate the Obama-era study. They also need to protect residents from the health risks of mining. Make sure people have treated municipal water, and if it’s expensive for municipal plants to treat the water, coal companies should pay. And if they can’t adequately mitigate the health risks, they should stop mountaintop removal mining.

What was it like working in West Virginia?

People were very welcoming. The people I spoke to were not looking to dramatize their problems and they didn’t want charity. What I saw was people struggling with competing needs, needs for jobs, need for clean air, need for water. And it’s hurting them. The coal industry is saying, if you want jobs, you have to give up everything else. People understand that’s not a fair deal.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I often heard the refrain, “why do people stay here.” The water has gone bad, there are no jobs, why stay? I only began to understand after visiting a few times how deeply rooted people are to the land and the mountains there, which makes their physical removal even more horrible. The family cemetery is always very close to the home. It’s not just about them, it’s about being close to where their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were. Being able to live there is much more important than a slightly better paying job elsewhere, making it even worse that politicians are giving up people’s air and water quality for money from the coal industry. 

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