Correction to This Article
Because of an editing error, this story did not explain that the EPA statement was only partially quoted. It should have said: "The notion of 'clarity' invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country," Silva said, in part. EPA officials declined to comment on the record beyond this statement.

EPA crackdown on mountaintop coal mining criticized as contradictory

Coal industry supporters protest Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s call for an end to mountaintop mining at a rally in Charleston, W.Va.
Coal industry supporters protest Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s call for an end to mountaintop mining at a rally in Charleston, W.Va. (Bob Bird/associated Press)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Here in coal country, President Obama's ambitious Environmental Protection Agency has met its first big mess.

On Inauguration Day, the EPA began a crackdown on "mountaintop" coal mines. The agency has scrutinized about 175 proposed mines, where peaks would be blasted off and valleys filled in with the rubble. It has signed off on only 48.

EPA officials -- repeating a refrain from a fast-marching first year in which they also took on greenhouse gases and the seemingly eternal problems of the Chesapeake Bay -- say they're just following the law. That, they say, means keeping poisonous things from the inside of a mountain out of streams on the surface.

But to many people in Appalachia, the orders coming out of Washington, especially one this month, have appeared contradictory and mysterious, signing off on some mines and blocking others. Environmentalists are unhappy because they fear federal officials are losing their nerve to take on the powerful coal industry. The coal industry is unhappy because it thinks the administration is on the brink of giving in to the green crowd.

To each side, it looks like the EPA hasn't made up its mind. Which would make now the time to yell as loudly as possible.

People have chained themselves to mine equipment and shouted one another down. One scooted past state troopers to slap an environmentalist. The EPA finds itself in the middle of the most bitter in-your-face environmental fight in America today, facing an early test of its resolve and political skills. The agency appears certain to bear much of the weight of carrying out Obama's historic environmental agenda.

"They didn't have a well-thought-out plan whenever they did this. And that's really been the basis of the uproar," said Randy Huffman, secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection, which EPA officials say has not been tough enough on mines in the past. Now, he said, confusion over the EPA's intentions "creates fear, and that brings out the worst in people."

A sign of fear

The latest sign of that fear came last Thursday, in an auditorium at the University of Charleston. A debate between a coal-company chief executive and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which attracted more than 1,000 people split between the two sides, had security reminiscent of a presidential visit or a prison rodeo.

Eight police officers were in the room, and two more with metal detectors guarded the door outside. No purses allowed. No backpacks. No weapons. Just to talk.

"The current EPA, which won't give a permit for anything for any reason . . . they're the ones that's going to cost people their jobs and weaken homeland security," said Don Blankenship, chairman and chief executive of Richmond-based Massey Energy, a major player in mountaintop mining. In the audience, coal miners, wearing uniforms striped with orange-and-silver reflective tape so coal trucks don't run them over, cheered.

On Monday, Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) issued a plea for an end to intimidation of people fighting mountaintop mining. "We will not in any way, shape or form in this state of West Virginia tolerate any violence against anyone on any side. If you're going to have the dialogue, have respect for each other," he said after a meeting with environmentalists and anti-mining activists.

Mountaintop mining, also called "mountaintop removal," is an exclusively Appalachian practice, dating to the 1970s but having gained momentum in the past 20 years. To get at coal seams that are too thin or too close to the surface to reach by tunneling, miners use explosives and huge machinery to remove the peak above the coal.


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