Saving Miners' Jobs Doesn't Justify Blowing Up Mountains
12 November 1999 By Stentor Danielson
Any visitor to my hometown of Palmerton, Pennsylvania, is greeted by the majestic sight of the north side of Blue Mountain - a steep slope completely stripped of plant life that is flanked by three black slag piles. Below Blue Mountain squats the culprit: the New Jersey Zinc Company.
In recent years, Palmerton has finally begun to make progress toward undoing the effects of an industry putting its commercial interests ahead of the natural world around it.
Given this background, I was understandably worried by a recent development in Congress' game of budget badminton. Backed by coal companies and lawmakers from western states, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., has advanced a rider to be attached to the Interior Department spending bill. The measure would overturn an October 20 court ruling against a mountaintop mining technique being used in West Virginia.
The technique in question involves blasting the tops off of mountains in order to get at valuable low-sulfur coal deposits. The resulting waste material and debris is then pushed into nearby valleys. Hundreds of coal miners came to the Capital on Tuesday to protest in favor of the technique, without which they say they would be unemployed.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haden, who issued the ruling, has suspended its implementation while West Virginia lawmakers appeal the decision. It may be too much to hope that this action will cause Byrd and his supporters to deem the rider redundant and discard it. Otherwise, it will be up to President Clinton to veto the long overdue spending bill in order to defeat a rather shortsighted provision.
It doesn't take a genius to see that the mining technique in question is a punch in our environment's kidneys. Blasting away the top of a mountain is damage enough. But bulldozing the debris into the valleys simply adds insult to injury, burying plant life and contaminating -- or even choking off -- streams. It's no surprise that Judge Haden found that the practice violates the Clean Water Act.
Coal companies and employees and their legal advocates claim that banning mountaintop blasting will eliminate jobs. No doubt it will. Coal mining accounts for three percent of all employment in West Virginia, the nation's second-biggest coal producer.
But, in the grand scheme of things, these jobs are decidedly temporary. There's a finite number of mountains in West Virginia, and a finite amount of coal in each one. The coal industry is already sizing back -- it now accounts for a third of the jobs it provided in 1979. But the damage that the blasting leaves will be around for a much longer time.
Succession - the process by which a barren area regains its forest cover - is a notoriously slow process. In order to see appreciable improvement in the state of Palmerton's barren mountain and slag piles, a mixture of sewage sludge, fly ash and grass seed was pumped onto the slopes. I can't imagine that such reconstructive action was cheap.
I bet the mining companies would reconsider if they were forced to revegetate all of the areas damaged by their mining techniques. By blowing up the mountain tops and pushing their waste into the valleys, mining companies are taking advantage of a resource that is owned by the people of West Virginia.
It's common sense that if you borrow something and break it, you pay to fix or replace it. The same logic should apply to companies that make use of our natural world. Perhaps the mining companies could take a cue from timber companies, who now, as a matter of course, replant tracts that they log off.
We will all be long in our graves when the mountains being blasted today have fully recovered, even taking into account the best help from humankind. Do we want to leave our children a forest that is dotted with barren scars? Do we want to give them bare rock and muddy streams in exchange for a few dollars that will long since be spent?
Hopefully, Clinton can see the shortsightedness of the coal interests and western lawmakers pushing the rider. Clinton's recent ban on road building in wilderness areas gives us reason to be cautiously optimistic.
But the budget crunch is on. Though the fiscal year began in October, Congress and President Clinton have yet to complete the necessary budget bills to ensure the federal government's functioning. Backers of the amendment are banking on the urgency of the fiscal situation to overpower any reservations regarding the rider. Furthermore, Byrd has vowed to block the three remaining overdue budget bills if the mountaintop blasting measure is not passed.
Defeating the measure still requires a strong stance by Clinton. He shouldn't be afraid to send the Interior Department spending bill back to the drawing board in order to save the mountains of West Virginia.
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