By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A03
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.
In most cases, the law requires that companies rebuild the mountain to its original shape. But leftover rubble is usually left in nearby valleys. There, scientists say, rainwater seeps over rocks that had previously been far underground. That can release trace amounts of salt and toxic metals, which can kill life in streams and cause health problems for people who drink the water.
This practice was deemed legal: From 2000 to 2008, federal and state authorities gave permission for 511 valley fills in West Virginia, according to the Government Accountability Office. Put back to back, the GAO estimated, it was the equivalent of filling a single valley at least 176 miles long.
But Obama's EPA signaled a new attitude early on by notifying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- which issues permits to these mines -- of its concerns about a mine in West Virginia. The 175 similar sites it has since scrutinized, including new applications, are spread across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.Clarity debated
At the EPA, officials say they're not out to stamp out mountaintop mining altogether -- this month they approved a West Virginia mine permit after the company promised changes to reduce its effect on streams by nearly 50 percent.
But to many environmentalists and coal-industry leaders, the EPA's actions have seemed erratic and uncertain. It has criticized some mines and approved others, both sides say, without drawing a clear line between good and bad. Activists on both sides say the agency hasn't always been clear about what criteria it is using to make the distinction -- making it hard to guess what mines will make the cut in the future.
EPA official Peter Silva said there was no problem with the clarity of the EPA's message.
"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. EPA officials declined to comment on the record beyond this statement.
Adding to the confusion: The Interior Department rejected a Bush-era rule considered friendly to mines, then said it wouldn't have a replacement ready for more than a year. And a Corps of Engineers official rejected an EPA request to revisit a permit given to a particularly large mine, leading the EPA to threaten a first-of-its-kind environmental veto.
"We really don't know where this is going," said Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association. He said his organization has passed the message to miners that the agency might hamstring an industry that is still crucial here, though mountaintop mining only accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production. "If there's going to be a change to EPA's attitude, everybody's got to work together."
On the other side, environmentalist Mike Roselle said the EPA's actions were reason to redouble a campaign of civil disobedience. Roselle, a veteran of campaigns against logging in the Northwest, has imported the same tactics and even some of the same people here. In the past year, he said, members of his Climate Ground Zero group have been arrested 150 times after sitting in trees on mine sites or chaining themselves to company equipment.
"We know for a fact that, when we shut down a mine, that somebody in the White House is aware of it," he said. Mine companies have said the practice is dangerous for both workers and protesters.
What's passed between the two sides has been mild, at least in a state where miners and mine companies used to shoot it out with rifles. But there have been flash points: At a public hearing in the fall, environmentalists say they were shouted down. At a march last year, a woman in a reflective-tape shirt stepped past the troopers standing guard and slapped local activist Julia Bonds. "They don't seem to understand the difference between nonviolence and violence," Bonds said.
At the debate last Thursday, with an unusually high police presence, neither side did anything worse than laugh at the other's speaker. But about an hour away, at a Massey Energy mine, sirens were in the woods.
Three activists had climbed into trees, Roselle said, and Massey security guards were using loud noises to stop them from sleeping and get them to come down.
On Wednesday, Roselle said a tree-sitter had descended because of gear that had become wet. The other two remained. He said he was pleased that the protest had caused headaches for Massey and the West Virginia government. "It absolutely worked," he said.