Confronting Coal Power

Days after it was announced that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had no concerns with 42 out of 48 new permits for mountaintop removal mining sites and was passing them on to the Army Corps of Engineers for final approval, several environmental activists with Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero as well as local protesters took part in a series of civil disobedience actions across Coal River Valley, West Virginia. The May 23 actions were aimed at mining companies engaging in mountaintop removal and coal power in general. Over 80 participated and 17 (the "Coal River 17") were arrested.

At a Patriot Coal mine on Kayford Mountain, near Cabin Creek, West Virginia, six activists locked themselves to a large mining dump truck and unfurled a banner reading "Never Again." State police arrested them and two other activists supporting them at the site.

In another action, two activists wearing hazmat suits and respirators boated on the seven-billion gallon Brushy Fork coal slurry dam, which is part of Massey Energy subsidiary Marfork Coal’s mining facility near Pettus, West Virginia. They floated a banner reading "West Virginia Says No More Toxic Sludge." The two were arrested by state police and charged with littering (on a toxic coal sludge lake) and misdemeanor trespassing.

Some hours later, over 75 people picketed the dam facility, including former Congressperson Ken Hechler. Protestors laid out shoes representing the number of deaths should the dam fail. Seven were arrested when they approached the facility’s entrance and refused to leave.

The actions followed several others this year. On February 3, five activists were arrested after locking themselves to an excavator at a Massey Energy mountaintop removal site in Raleigh County, West Virginia, with banners reading "Save Coal River Mountain" and "Wind Mills Not Toxic Spills." Eight more were arrested later that day for trespassing while attempting to deliver a letter asking Massey Energy to cease mountaintop removal operations in Coal River Mountain. On March 14, dozens of activists protested at the headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which owns and operates the Kingston Fossil Plant, where a huge coal fly ash slurry spill took place in December 2008; 14 demonstrators took part in a "die-in" and were arrested for blocking the sidewalk.

Deforestation, Toxic Flooding, and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

These civil disobedience actions at different types of facilities highlight the ecological destruction of coal power in all its stages. Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining most commonly used in the Appalachian Mountains. Mountains are deforested and the topsoil left from the deforestation is removed. Explosives blast away the overburden that is left over, or the subsoil and rock, to nearby valleys or hollows ("valley fills") to expose the coal, which is then removed by dragline excavators. Although flattened mountains are supposed to be reclaimed with their own or other topsoil, coal companies are often granted waivers and are allowed to reclaim the land with "topsoil substitutes."

Kayford Mountain is one of the most famous examples of mountaintop removal destruction. Over 12,000 acres of Kayford Mountain have been destroyed since mining began in 1986. According to an October 2005 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, at current rates and with no new restrictions, 2,200 square miles, or 1.4 million acres, of Appalachian forests will be cleared by 2012. The same report states that over 400,000 acres of forest were cut and 724 miles of streams in central Appalachia were buried by valley fills between 1985 and 2001. According to a December 3, 2008 Washington Post article, the federal government now estimates that 1,600 miles of streams in central Appalachia have been buried by valley fills since the mid-1980s.

The ecological destruction of coal power does not stop there. After mining, the coal is then processed, often in on-site processing plants, after which millions of gallons of by-product known as coal sludge or slurry are stored in open-air pools, which are separated from waterways by earthen dams, so that usable coal particles fall to the bottom. If these dams fail, coal sludge floods local areas, threatening residents, infrastructure, flora and fauna.

May 23 protest in Coal River Valley, West Virginia; shoes represent the 998 estimated immediate death toll should the coal sludge dam failphoto by Chris Irwin

The Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment is one such open-air pool. Massey Energy’s own filings with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) project a death toll of 998 and floodwaters of 38 feet in the town of Peytona, 26 miles downstream, if the dam breaks. The company plans to blast 100 feet away from the impoundment and has already received blasting permits from the state DEP.

Such coal sludge impoundments have a long history of failures with terrible consequences. On October 21, 1966, a coal sludge impoundment in Aberfan, Wales failed, burying Pantglas Junior School, killing 144 people, 116 of them children. In the Buffalo Creek Flood, the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment Dam 3 in Logan County, West Virginia burst on February 26, 1972, 4 days after having been declared "satisfactory" by a federal mine inspector. The ensuing flood overwhelmed Dams 1 and 2 and released 132 million gallons of black waste water, cresting over 30 feet high, on 18 coal mining hamlets, killing 125, injuring 1,121, and leaving over 4,000 homeless out of a population of 5,000.

In the Martin County Sludge Spill, the bottom of a Massey Energy coal sludge impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky broke on October 11, 2000 into an abandoned underground mine, where the slurry came out of the mine openings, releasing approximately 306 million gallons of sludge down two Tug Fork River tributaries, Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork, killing all of their aquatic life. The spill contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, polluting the Big Sandy River, its tributaries, and the Ohio River.

By far the largest coal sludge impoundment failure and the largest fly ash release in U.S. history was the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash spill in Roane County, Tennessee on December 22, 2008, where an ash dike ruptured, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash (coal residue that contains a significant amount of carcinogens, according to the EPA) slurry, a volume 50 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, into 300 acres of surrounding land and traveled up and down the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

After processing, coal is burned in fossil fuel power plants to produce electricity, emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year, a pollutant that is the biggest cause of global warming, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as emitting nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year in the U.S. die prematurely due to pollution from coal-fired power plants. The flue gas that exits to the atmosphere through a duct, pipe, or chimney, also includes fly ash and mercury. Coal-fired power plants, even the ones using the latest technology, are the dirtiest and most inefficient power plants, more so than power plants based on other fossil fuels such as petroleum or natural gas, which release half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

The coal industry has been marketing itself with a "greenwashing" campaign where they have tried to justify building dozens of new coal power plants by claiming they can be potentially "clean" in the future. "Clean coal" technology, however, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon sequestration, which would theoretically reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent, currently exists only in a few demonstration projects. The technology is unproven and very expensive and most of the investment towards it has come not from industry, but from government subsidies, such as the $3.4 billion for CCS technology from the federal government as part of the recent stimulus bill.

Phasing out Coal Power

Since mountaintop removal mining has, in part, allowed coal to remain the cheapest source of energy, any move to ban it will be opposed by both the coal mining lobby and the utilities lobby. A better solution is a comprehensive coal phase-out, preventing the construction of new coal-fired power plants and decommissioning the approximately 600 existing coal-fired power plants, reducing not only carbon dioxide emissions, but also the demand for coal. Already, countries such as Germany and provinces such as Ontario, Canada have committed to phasing out coal by 2018 and 2014, respectively—gradually replacing it with renewable energy.

The struggle to ban mountaintop removal mining has been directed at both government agencies that regulate it as well as private sector companies that are involved directly, such as mining companies, or indirectly through the financing of it. As the president is the one who designates the EPA administrator and appoints the Interior Secretary, and affects environmental policy in other ways, environmentalists have been paying attention to Obama’s positions and policies. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Obama and McCain vowed to end mountaintop removal.

On March 24, Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA’s administrator designated by Obama in December 2008, announced that the agency was planning a closer review of about 200 mountaintop removal mining permit applications, due to concerns about potential harm to water quality. She sent two letters to the Army Corps of Engineers that recommended denying a permit application for the site near Ethel, West Virginia, and urging that a Pike County, Kentucky application be revised to ensure the protection of streams. The same day, however, the EPA said it thought that most permit applications would not raise "environmental concerns" and, in April, Jackson said that the EPA was not trying to stop mountaintop removal mining.

On April 27, Obama appointee Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that he was taking steps to restore the "stream buffer rule," which states that mountaintop removal mining companies cannot deposit debris within 100 feet of a stream and which had been reversed in December 2008 by the Bush administration. However, just a few days before the civil disobedience actions, Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a supporter of mountaintop removal, announced that the EPA had raised environmental concerns on only 6 of the 48 new Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal sites, in effect giving the Army Corps of Engineers the green light to grant the 42 other new applications.

Students from James Madison University show the effects of Bank of America’s investments at the decimated Kayford Mountainphoto by Matt Noerpel,

While several organizations have lobbied congress and petitioned for the EPA to deny mountaintop removal permit applications or to ban it altogether—and others like the Coal River 17 have targeted the mining companies themselves—groups like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Rising Tide North America (RTNA) have targeted the coal industry’s financiers. According to RAN’s report "Banks, Climate Change, & the New Coal Rush," Citi (formerly Citigroup) is the leading financier of the coal industry, followed by Bank of America (BofA). Both have financed Massey Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and others corporations, as well as American Electric Power, Dynegy, and other utilities that own, operate, and plan to build dozens more coal-fired power plants. Both have also financed Peabody Energy that is the world’s largest private-sector coal mining company and has, among other things, devastated the Black Mesa ecosystem and the Dine (Navajo) and Hopi communities’ water supply through its Black Mesa coal mine. On November 14-15, 2008, RAN, RTNA, and Greenpeace organized a National Day of Action against Citi and BofA for their financing of coal. Hundreds of activists in over 50 U.S. cities protested and engaged in nonviolent direct actions against these banks’ offices. On December 3, BofA announced that it would phase out financing for companies engaging in mountaintop removal mining, though it still finances coal power utilities.

While the Coal River 17 focused on companies involved in mountaintop removal mining, which is largely centered in Appalachia, the struggle against coal is an international one. Despite at times fighting for local or national-level objectives, this will require solidarity across borders with miners, affected communities, activists, and many others.


Gonzalo Vizcardo is a student at the University of Miami and is originally from Venezuela.