By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008
MUD, W.Va. -- This is a place where "moving mountains" is no longer a figure of speech. Here, among the steep green Appalachians, mining companies are moving mountains off their pedestals to get the kind of coal that Washington needs.
It happened here, on a ridgeline called Sugar Tree Mountain, where locals once hunted for squirrels and puckery-sour grapes. Then the top was scraped off to expose the black seams in its innards, leaving a rock-strewn plateau.
"It used to be West Virginia," said Vivian Stockman, an environmental activist. "And now it's Mars."
Though this isolated mine is more than 400 miles from Washington, the two places share a powerful connection: coal. The D.C. region, with its need for electricity skyrocketing, has been burning steadily more coal, buying almost a third of its supply from this part of Appalachia.
And that, analysts and environmentalists said, means that Washington's air conditioners and iPods have helped drive the region's "mountaintop" mining.
The coal industry and the Bush administration say the benefits of these mines, measured in jobs and energy, outweigh the damage.
But in West Virginia, where mining opponents can face back-roads intimidation, some neighbors say that Washington area residents might not know the true cost of their power.
"We have to go through a lot for them to get their electric," said Lucille Miller, who picked grapes on the vanished mountain.
The links that bind the cathedral-ceiling suburbs of Washington to the blasted-out mines of West Virginia can be traced through federal energy records. The Washington Post analyzed almost four years of data, showing where the six coal-fired power plants across the D.C. region bought their supply.
The records make one thing clear: The plants have been buying a lot more coal. Total purchases were more than 40 percent higher in 2006 than in 2004. The increase came as the Washington region's demand for electricity grew 18 percent since 2001, driven by population growth and an increasingly wired culture. D.C. area plants do not send their electricity straight to local homes but feed it into the multi-state regional power grid.
Records also show that about 32 percent of the coal the plants bought came from one kind of mine in this corner of Appalachia -- a "surface" operation, where miners do not have to tunnel.
The region, where southern West Virginia meets western Virginia and eastern Kentucky, is home to the vast majority of mountaintop mines in the United States.
Coal companies say these methods provide valuable jobs. The companies can extract coal efficiently from places where tunneling would not work, such as where the rock is too weak to hold up a roof.
"There's one big reason you mountaintop mine. That's where the good Lord put the coal," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. He said that about 70 percent of the coal from surface mines in this part of Appalachia originates at mountaintop mines.
The Washington region does not account for all the coal mined here: The rest of the world is demanding more, and paying more for it.
"Any coal coming from central Appalachian strip mines is almost certainly coming from mountaintop-removal-type mines . . . that bury streams and that permanently destroy, you know, many, many miles of forest," said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, an environmental group in West Virginia.
The story of mountaintop mining here begins with the mountains themselves: They have been carved over 140 million years, making them older than the Himalayas but only a fraction of their size. Inside, there are shiny, uneven layers of bituminous coal, like icing in a layer cake somebody dropped.
Starting in earnest in the 1980s, mining companies began extracting the region's coal by removing the mountains on top of it. At these sites, the top 100 feet or more of a ridgeline is shaved of its trees, blasted with explosives and then scraped away by shoveling machines the size of small office buildings.
At some sites, the companies try to rebuild the silhouette of the old mountain. At others, often called "mountaintop removal" sites, they leave it roughly flat. At both kinds, companies often perform "valley fills," in which tons of excess rock and dirt are dumped into nearby stream valleys.
In all, the federal government has said, these mines have affected, or could affect by 2012, about 816,000 acres. That is an area 20 times the size of the District, scattered in patches across Appalachia.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said they have pushed the coal companies to make mines smaller as well as to rebuild and reseed more mountains. They said, however, that the coal inside the mountains -- known for producing less-harmful emissions -- is too valuable to stop the practices.
"You've got a decision that's got to be made, on a daily basis, about the energy needs of this country," said Greg Peck of the EPA's Office of Water.
But not everybody looks at these mines as a divine gift.
"It just doesn't seem real because of the way it used to be," said Lucille Miller, looking out at the gravelly mesa that used to be Sugar Tree Mountain. In the 1960s, Miller said, she would walk on the hill and describe the trees and flowers to her father, who was blinded in a mining accident.
"This will never, ever be like that again," she said. Nearby, the small creek where her siblings had played has been buried under rubble. Lucille Miller and her husband live in Mud part time.
Elsewhere, neighbors complain about flash floods bursting out of denuded mine sites and about explosions that can disrupt the water flowing from wells. "It starts off looking like orange juice, and then it starts looking like chili, and then you don't have none," said Barbara Chafin of Mingo County, W.Va.
Biologists say the effects can fall even harder on the environment, suffocating the life in Appalachian streams.
"It destroys the streams. I mean, it eradicates them. It's dead. It's gone," said Margaret Palmer, head of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
It is impossible to know which of the mines in the region provide coal to the power plants around Washington. The mines' owners, Constellation Energy of Baltimore and Mirant of Atlanta, would not reveal the mines from which they bought coal.
Federal records show, however, that both companies' plants bought mountains of coal from the region. More than 90,000 tons were shipped last year from surface mines in Boone County, home to part of the mine near Mud, to the Brandon Shores plant in Anne Arundel County, and 237,000 tons went to the nearby Herbert A. Wagner plant. The Potomac River plant in Alexandria bought coal in the past from Mingo County, where Chafin's water turned muddy.
At Constellation, which owns the Brandon Shores and Wagner plants, spokesman Lawrence McDonnell said the company had not heard concerns from customers about using coal from mountaintop mining.
"That may come at one time, but the market is not there yet," he said.
Environmentalists in West Virginia have said they want big-city electricity users to try to conserve power.
In West Virginia, home to the majority of the mountaintop mines in the region, they are a fiery political issue. Last year, activists won a lawsuit challenging the mines on environmental grounds, and a federal appeals court in Richmond will hear that case next month. The debate is so heated that a Christian group has called for a statewide fast around the court date to clear minds and settle emotions.
If the mines were shut down, there could be serious economic ripples in the region, where the coal companies can be the dominant employers. Larry Lodato, of the economic development authority in Boone County, W.Va., said he worried that environmentalists would succeed in stopping permits for new mountaintop mines.
"We're hurting" if that happens, Lodato said. "A lot of our companies would be looking elsewhere. There would be a lot of jobs lost."
When the two sides meet in little hollows, confrontations can be even less civil.
This month, anti-mining activist Larry Gibson was standing along a dirt road near Kayford, W.Va., with a Washington Post reporter and photographer. On the back of his pickup was a large sign that read: "Stop Mountaintop Removal."
A large dump truck roared by, kicking up a cloud of dust, on its way toward a mine. A few seconds later, Gibson's CB radio crackled.
"I dusted 'em out!" the driver said, apparently angered by Gibson's sign.
Soon after, another dump truck pulled up behind Gibson's pickup. The truck driver said on his CB radio that he intended to pull in front of Gibson on the isolated mountain road and block him in.
For a few moments, the dump truck tried to pass Gibson, jockeying for position on the narrow road at 20 miles more than the speed limit. Finally, Gibson turned off.
"They went up toward Samples; there's nothing I can do," the truck driver said, referring to a nearby mine. The truck then turned down a road marked Empire Mine Office.
A spokesman for the mine's parent company, Massey Energy Co., said the company could not verify that a Massey vehicle was involved but added, "Massey will not tolerate dangerous or unprofessional behavior by its members."
As he drove away, the coal truck driver noted that Gibson was accompanied by another car, belonging to a Post photographer, with Maryland license plates.
The driver parted with a reminder that the mines and the Washington area are connected.
"They don't realize that that's where they get their electricity from," the driver said over the radio. "God gave us coal to mine, then, didn't He?"
Staff writer Steven Mufson and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.