Bill Moyers: Mountaintop Mining (article; video)

Dandelion Salad

Updated: added video Aug. 15, 2010

Bill Moyers Journal
September 7, 2007

As proposed new rules may allow coal companies to expand mountain top removal mining, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL reports on local evangelical Christians who are turning to their faith to help save the earth.



Bill Moyers Journal: Mountaintop Mining

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Mountaintop Mining

Bill Moyers Journal
September 7, 2007

In August 2007, The Office of Surface Mining in the Interior Department issued a draft revision to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Surface mining accounts for an increasing share of the coal mined in the United States. The proposed changes relate to the practice of “mountaintop mining” which although cheaper and safer than underground mining, has come under fire from environmentalists and coal-producing area residents.

In the mountaintop process the top of the mountain or the “overburden” is broken up and removed by blasting in order to reach coal seams. Once the rock surrounding the coal is blasted off, in what is known in the industry as “shoot and shove,” the excess rock and earth is dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below, often burying the streams that run through them. This dumping is primarily where residents and environmentalists have come into conflict with recent rule changes. (View a detailed description of the process.)

In late 2006, MOYERS ON AMERICA: IS GOD GREEN? reported on some Evangelical Christians who were turning to their faith to fight the effects of mountaintop mining on their communities. Judy Bonds, West Virginia resident and member of Christians for the Mountains queried:

There are three million pounds of explosives used a day just in West Virginia to blow the tops off these mountains. Three million pounds a day…To knock fly rock everywhere, to send silica and coal dust and rock dust and fly rock in our homes. I wonder which one of these mountains do you think God will come down here and blow up? Which one of these hollers do you think Jesus would store waste in? That’s a simple question. That’s all you have to ask.

Critics contend that the new rule change is another step in an effort to undercut the environmental safeguards of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the landmark Clean Water Act and give “mountaintop mining” interests greater and greater leeway.

Rule Changes and Comments

  • 2002: The Environmental Protection Agency rewrote clean water regulations to add mine waste to the list of materials that can be used to fill in streams for development and other purposes.
  • 2003: The EPA released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessing the environmental and social impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. The study confirmed that mountaintop removal coal mining has affected forest areas and streams in negative ways, and identified proposed actions that government agencies might take to minimize the adverse effects of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills. Despite these findings, the Bush administration called for an easing of existing environmental restrictions on this mining method. The “Preferred” Action Alternative offered in the report recommends that “The agencies would developed enhanced coordination of regulatory actions, while maintaining independent review and decision making by each agency.”
  • 2004: Rule changes are proposed which reduce the surface mining law’s buffer zone rule that prohibited mining activities within 100 feet of larger streams. New guidelines would required companies to respect the buffer zone “to the extent practicable.”
  • 2006: The proposed new rule codifies the 2004 buffer zone proposals and, according to THE NEW YORK TIMES, “seems specifically to authorize the disposal of ‘excess spoil fills,’ a k a mine waste, in hollows and streams.”THE NEW YORK TIMES in reporting the proposed changes stated: “The Office of Surface Mining in the Interior Department drafted the rule, which will be subject to a 60-day comment period and could be revised, although officials indicated that it was not likely to be changed substantially.” On it’s Web site The Office of Surface Mining posted an FAQ about the new rulings and responding directly to the TIMES, saying “This statement is not accurate.”You can read the FAQ, and comment on the proposed rule changes here:


Mountaintop coal mining at Hale Gap, VA By John M. Broder

Marc Ash Interviews Bill Moyers Part II: “Is God Green?” (video link)