A lack of political will
power. Suggestions for reforming the
mountaintop-removal-valley fill situation were made
in 1999 by the Governor's Task Force On Mountaintop Removal
And Related Mining Practices. Little has come from the recomendations
in the report.
Why? Inaction was the political
choice made -- another sellout to the coal industry. Inaction
for the entire decade of the 1990s compelled persons concerned
about preserving our state's natural heritage to take drastic
measures. Sue 'em.
Most reforms have arrived
during litigation instituted by environmental groups
and coalfield citizens as well as from federal regulatory
pressure. The United Mine Workers of America union edged
toward supporting reform but backed off as layoffs of coal
In the border state of Kentucky
calls for reforming mountaintop-removal-and-valley-fill
have rung through the hollows and mountainous areas. Similar
abuse of AOC variance and postmining land use requirements
exists. Opposition by citizens to these practices grew
in 1999 with an emotional focal point being strip mining
on Kentucky's highest peak (4,139 feet)-- Black Mountain. In
April 1999 coal companies and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
reached an agreement that would save 1,850 acres atop Black
Mountain and protect a substantial amount of surrounding
acreage. And, as in West Virginia, Kentucky's leading newspaper,
The Courier-Journal, has taken the lead in investigating
and exposing failures of regulators.
Whether we speak of Kentucky or
West Virginia, the issues are largely the same.
Reforming the method
of mining. Coal companies in the 1990s chose the most
environmentlaly destructive and the cheapest way to mine
West Virginia's coal. Humongous drag lines (shovels)
and 240-ton trucks have led to multi-thousand acre, contiguous
mines (to take advantage of the heavy equipment used).
Reduce the size of the equipment and the size of mines
and valley fills decreases.
Reclamation has been done
late in the mining process for ease of operation.
Reclaim the land contemporaeously with mining and valley
fills shrink in size and reclamation costs lessen.
Valley fills are built from the top down. Construct
valley fills from the bottom up and they shrink in size
due to leveling and compaction and thus can be taller.
So there is much that coal companies can do to lessen
the impacts of their mountaintop removal mines and valley
The ultimate reform of the mountaintop- removal-and-valley-fill
method of coal extraction in West Virginia will be shaped
by market forces and time. Neither
favors West Virginia coal production.
Coal producers are consolidating
rapidly at a time of low prices and oversupply. Peabody
Holding and Arch Coal, both based in St. Louis, are the
two top dogs. The coal industry increasingly is dominated
by large, well-financed, and sharply focused corporations.
Bigness offers economy of scale and negotiating power as
to freight rates and sales prices. Utilities are demanding
progressively lower rates in new purchase contracts. Producers
continue to find and use the cheapest places and methods
of mining coal.
In the United States there are
three major coal-producing regions: Appalachia (West
Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and
Ohio), the Illinois Basin (Illinois, western Kentucky, and
Indiana), and the Powder River Basin (Wyoming and Montana).
Coal production is steadily shifting westward, having more
than doubled since 1980, while production in the East has
is abundant and cheap to produce. It
lies in thick beds, up to 40 yards thick, in flat, rolling
terrain, unlike West Virginia coal. In the West no
mountain tops are removed nor streams and valleys filled.
Topsoil is scraped, the overburden is hauled away
(for later use) leaving a pit, the coal is blasted and removed,
and the pit is filled. Western coal is low in sulfur
and ash, has some heavy metals, contains more moisture and
lower stored energy (heat per unit) than eastern coal, and
is shipped longer distances than is eastern coal.
And the western mines are
huge. In 1998 Peabody's Powder River Coal Company,
which controls 2.7 billion tons of reserves, at four mines
with 1,000 employees, shipped 92 million tons of coal. To
read about Wyoming's Powder River Basin see http://www.vcn.com/...
Western coal is cheaper
than eastern coal, roughly 80 percent cheaper.
Even with higher shipping costs and lower stored energy,
western coal is the long-term winner. If and when
eastern electric utilities modify their plants to burn western
coal, West Virginia coal will be in deep trouble.
The greater use by utilities of scrubbers to remove sulfur
could help northern West Virginia's high sulfur coal but
would not alter the West's competitive advantage.
Aging industry. The mining
of coal in West Virginia is an aging industry.
Pressures for cleaner air militate against using coal to
generate electricity. Cheaper coal is available elsewhere.
How do we prepare for
the post-coal mining economy?
That is the question. A September 2000 series on point is
And what if mountaintop removal
is banned (which seems highly unlikely)? A Fall 1999
study prepared for the Bragg case [See Valley
fills] for coal lessors showed these effects of
a ban: annual loss of 17-18 million tons of coal production
(10% of state's production), annual loss of $490 million
in coal industry revenue, and loss of $37 million in annual
taxes and fees.
Northern West Virginia, which
faced declining coal mining in the early 1990s, has adjusted
to the loss of coal mining jobs and revenues. Its natural
advantage is proximity to West Virginia University, Pittsburgh,
and the eastern seaboard. New Economy jobs have blossomed.
The area is a long way from nirvana but hope is present
in the air.
Southern West Virginia's
economy remains a one-trick pony called coal.
Last updated on Thursday, September 28, 2000