By Olin Ericksen Daily Progress correspondent
Published: December 6, 2009
In the bitter war over mountaintop mining, the frontlines often shift — from courtrooms to Capitol Hill to the tiny Appalachia towns where neighbors clash.
This week, the debate is coming to Charlottesville.
“Coal Country” is a new documentary that will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Vinegar Hill Theatre. The screenings will be preceded by a discussion featuring two coalfield residents who are featured in the film — Kathy Selvage of Wise County and Larry Gibson of West Virginia. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door.
The film gives a view from the trenches of the more than 40-year struggle between environmental groups and the coal industry on the controversial practice of detonating mountaintops to get at cleaner, cheaper coal in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia.
A fundraiser set for 5 p.m. Thursday at Siips Wine Bar will benefit a broad coalition of environmental groups that are working to halt the practice, including the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Voices. Tickets are $40 and include a movie ticket, wine and hors d’oeuvres, live music and presentations by “Coal Country” producer Mari-Lyn Evans, Selvage and Gibson.
“If people in Charlottesville were aware of the destruction going on, I’m confident they would do something about the issue,” said Kayti Wingfield, coalition coordinator for the nonprofit group Wise Energy, which is spearheading the event.
“In the name of cheap energy, Charlottesville is also destroying these communities,” Wingfield said. “Once you destroy a mountain, that’s it.”
In addition to permanently reshaping mountains, environmental groups say mountaintop mining — also called surface mining — harms air quality, vegetation and wildlife. Most importantly, they say, the debris is often dumped into valleys or hollows, clogging waterways, which leads to flooding and ecological damage.
Mining officials counter that mountaintop mining is cheaper and safer than tunneling and its coal is lower in sulfur. While they admit that mountaintop mining alters landscapes and harms waterways, mining officials say it brings jobs to many areas where there are few, increases wages and keeps utility rates down.
“The [film directors] could be unaware that the U.S. is mired in the deepest recession since the Depression with the longest and highest unemployment record in 70 years,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.
Popovich noted, as “Coal Country” does, that communities are divided, split between the long-term effects of the practice and many who consider it essential to their livelihood.
Groups opposed to mountaintop mining say the jobs come and go quickly and there are not enough coal reserves, especially coal in seams near the surface of mountains, for more than two to three decades of production, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration projections.
“We are not taking away jobs, we are out to create a sustainable future for Southwest Virginia,” Wingfield said.
Mountaintop mining now accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s overall coal production, according to the EIA, and more than 50 percent in central Appalachia. Nearly half of all of the electricity in the United States comes from coal, according to the EIA.
To the dismay of groups such as the SELC, rule changes by the Bush administration and the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2007 have loosened regulations on mountaintop mining, especially how close debris can be dumped into waterways, known as buffer zones.
“The coal industry has gotten away with this outrageous mining practice for far too long, leaving the forests, waters and people of Southwest Virginia and elsewhere in near ruin,” said Marirose Pratt, an attorney with the SELC.
The SELC has a lawsuit pending against a Bush-era rule that removes stream protections in and near mountaintop removal sites.
While President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to formally weigh in on the issue, Interior officials said in November that state permits for mountaintop mining, as well as federal regulations, may need to be more heavily scrutinized.
On another front, a bill known as the Clean Water Protection Act is working its way through the House of Representatives. The bill, which 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Ivy, backs, would make it more difficult to dump debris from mountaintop mining in places such as valleys, where the debris might harm nearby water. Mining officials say if the bill passes, it would effectively make mountaintop mining cost-prohibitive.
In tiny towns like Wise, residents are watching the chess game closely. Many are concerned about their jobs. Others, such as Selvage, worry about what their surroundings will look like in the future.
“They blew up the mountain in front of my mother’s eyes … in front of her property,” Selvage said. “Lots of people talk about the economy, but how can I explain that to my children when they don’t have clean air to breathe or clean water to drink?”