July 15, 2008

High and Dry - Last weekend’s congressional trip on mountaintop removal was missing a key element: Congress

HAZARD, Ky. — It was snowing in February when we hiked to the peak of the mountain in Rick Handshoe’s backyard, about a half-hour up from his blue-on-royal-blue doublewide, burrowed in a dusty hollow in the small Appalachian community of Hueysville, Ky. Snow does strange things to a mountain range lined with the region’s elegant mixed mesophytic forest. The leafless trees are without majesty, and the absence of lush green gives a Chia-Pet effect to the panorama of mountains, like men balding in awkward patterns. 

Many in view are marred by ongoing mountaintop removal operations, massive machine-driven jobs that get at coal seams buried deep within mountains by blowing them up. The operations are filthy, raw and damaging; Handshoe shows me photographs of massive clouds of dust kicked up at midday by passing coal trucks. There is the photo of his daughter’s Chevy Malibu covered in thick black ash that Handshoe believes came from tires burnt on a nearby job. His substantial garden — more than just a novelty in these parts — has withered from the heavy soot in the air. 

graphic courtesy of Appalachian Voices: Studies clearly link poverty to areas with high concentrations of mountain-top removal mining.
graphic courtesy of Appalachian Voices: Studies clearly link poverty to areas with high concentrations of mountain-top removal mining.

Handshoe’s neighbors, the ones whose backyards are more plateaus than mountains anymore, signed the coal company’s property leases. He signed too, a couple years ago. But he didn’t really understand then, he says, that Miller Bros. Coal was asking to use his property for 15 years so it could move in 300 feet from his trailer — right where the narrow dirt road to the peak forms — to extend a mountaintop removal mining job he’s been watching approach, from this very peak, for five years. 

Handshoe and about 50 others came to the Wendell Ford Airport in Hazard last Saturday to pass along a message to Congress: Mountaintop removal mining is destroying their mountains, water supplies and ways of life, and they’d like it to stop. According to Matthew Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, coal production in Appalachia peaked in the 1990s and has been steadily declining since. New studies show more clearly than ever that toxins long kept dormant are leaching from blown-up bedrock into water supplies, poisoning wildlife and possibly people. A March 2008 study by West Virginia University showed that risk for certain kidney and pulmonary diseases is substantially higher in the coalfields than other parts of the country. 

Photo by Stephen George: Rick Handshoe. Left: A sticker placed prominently in the Wendell Ford Airport, which is built atop a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Hazard, Ky.
Photo by Stephen George: Rick Handshoe. Left: A sticker placed prominently in the Wendell Ford Airport, which is built atop a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Hazard, Ky.

Except Congress didn’t show. What was to be the first congressional visit to a mountaintop removal mining site in Kentucky didn’t happen. 

Reps. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and Norm Dicks, D-Wash., had wanted to come for months, according to a Chandler aide who made it here. When Chandler was appointed to the appropriations committee last year, he sought out Dicks — chair of the appropriations subcommittee with funding authority over the Office of Surface Mining and the Environmental Protection Agency — and started talking to him about mountaintop removal. Chandler is a co-sponsor of the Clean Water Protection Act, Congress’ latest attempt to regulate the practice. 

According to Chandler’s aide, someone left the master switch on the plane they were taking from Washington, D.C. to Hazard on all night, and by morning, the battery was dead. The day before, according to a KFTC staffer, Brent Wahlquist, director of OSM, withdrew from the event after attempting to change the agenda to provide “equal time” for the coal industry. The event, already rescheduled from the fall of 2007, will have to wait again. Many here assume sabotage. 

“We are not surprised at this level of incompetence (from OSM),” Doug Doerrfield, KFTC chairman, says. 

Jim Creevy, Chandler’s aide, says his office will act with haste to reschedule. With everybody already here, though, folks complain to Creevy, and he calmly fields their concerns, offering a sympathetic nod here and there. Around 15 people give firsthand accounts of life in the coalfields — orange water with high levels of arsenic and methane, foundations cracked from blasting. 

Photo by Stephen George: A sticker placed prominently in the Wendell Ford Airport, which is built atop a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Hazard, Ky.
Photo by Stephen George: A sticker placed prominently in the Wendell Ford Airport, which is built atop a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Hazard, Ky.

“This just makes us want to fight harder,” novelist and Eastern Kentucky native Silas House says. 

State Rep. Don Pasley, D-Winchester, was the sponsor this year of the Stream Saver Bill, which would regulate mine waste that is dumped into valley fills and atop waterways near mountaintop removal sites. The bill never ascended committee. 

“The reason I got interested (in mountaintop removal) is the Kentucky River,” Pasley says. “It runs right through the middle of my district. Not only does it run through my district, it supplies water to 800,000 central Kentuckians. The No. 1 pollutant in the Kentucky River is sedimentation. Where we’re at here today is the headwater for the Kentucky River. That sedimentation is coming from practices like mountaintop removal and valley fills.” 


Working alongside the social justice organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and with legal assistance from the Sierra Club, Handshoe and a few of his neighbors believed they’d figured out the best way to stop the mountaintop job coming for his property: water. 

Handshoe was convinced he could prove the affiliated valley fill would bury a healthy stream on his property. He’s photographed it regularly for the last year, and his pictures show that it has run continuously over that time, even through last year’s debilitating drought, which Handshoe says was the roughest he’s ever seen. He showed the photos to the Army Corps of Engineers, and finally, after two years of trying, got a representative — Jim Thomas, the Corp’s project manager for the Miller Bros. job — to inspect the stream. 

It was a small victory when, in a May 22 e-mail, Thomas announced that the Corps had decided Handshoe’s stream was, in fact, a perennial stream. However, at the bottom of the e-mail, Thomas writes that the entire stream is not within the project boundary of the mine — one-tenth of one mile away, according to Handshoe — and therefore, not the Corps’ responsibility to protect. Sometime within the next decade, the hollow within eyeshot of Handshoe’s trailer will be a valley fill. 

A former government employee who is now retired, Handshoe is frustrated with the process, having dedicated the last few years of his life to the substantial learning curve of mining laws and regulations. He says he’s almost out of options: He and four neighbors petitioned the state Environment and Public Protection Cabinet for a hearing on the Miller Bros. permit; early last month, attorneys for both parties responded, demanding not only that the petition be dropped, but that Handshoe and his neighbors pay attorney’s fees. 

“It’s really bothered me about fighting for two years to prove this is a stream, and then not getting any help from the state or federal government on this issue,” Handshoe says. “If they get to take this out, then it’s going to be acres and acres that the wildlife is not going to have any water source.”