West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection accused of ‘permitting one disaster after another’
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On March 16, a day before seven environmental groups announced their intention to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop removal and other destructive surface coal mining, approximately 200 people rallied in front of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) building to demand that it stop issuing permits for mountaintop removal.
Speakers moved beyond the customary concerns about environmental impacts and alluded to several studies that show that the strip-mining practice causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses from clouds of fine blasting dust.
According to one study published on the United States Institute of Health webpage, “Appalachian mountaintop mining particulate matter induces neoplastic transformation of human bronchial epithelial cells and promotes tumor formation.” Additionally, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign website offers a brief video about a child needing breathing treatments because of exposure to dust clouds from a nearby mountaintop removal site. Another page, on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website, provides information garnered from more than two dozen studies about the illnesses and deaths caused by mountaintop removal.
Among those present or speaking at “The People’s Foot” rally were several environmental leaders, Mountain State residents, at least two groups of college students visiting West Virginia on immersion trips, a singer from Kentucky, a Charleston singer and poet, and a 10-year-old girl.
Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch boomed, “DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has finally conceded that these health studies need to be considered, but he says his agency does not have the expertise to do so. If his agency does not understand the health impacts of the actions that they permit, then they have no business issuing more mountaintop removal permits. Randy Huffman has the authority, the mission and the moral obligation to protect people’s health, so he should issue no more mountaintop removal permits until he understands the consequences.”
Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition added, “Mountaintop removal is killing the people I love, and my government is allowing it. The West Virginia DEP is permitting one disaster after another, and the people of West Virginia are paying for these disasters.”
Bo Webb, who organized the rally, called for the passage of federal legislation – HR 912, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. “Randy Huffman could refuse to issue another mountaintop removal permit based on the health impacts, but he would lose his job. Our state government will make sure that the permits continue to flow.”
Tom Breiding with Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute brought a group of students to the rally and was taking them to the West Virginia Coal Association office the next day. “We provide a comprehensive overview of what is happening in West Virginia,” said Breiding.
Also escorting a student group was Wess Harris. A sociologist by training, Harris is also a farmer, educator, and self-described progressive activist living in central West Virginia. He is also a retired underground miner who was a union organizer. He stressed that he seeks to provide the students he brings in with a balanced understanding of West Virginia. “I want them to learn what we are hearing today, but I also want them to respect coal miners. It is important that they understand that we’re not bad people.” He added, about the students, “I hope they come up with a solution.”
Tonya Adkins, a native West Virginian now living in Kentucky, sang a song she wrote based on Revelation 11:18. The lyrics include the line, “What will they say on the judgment day when God destroys those who destroyed the earth?” Commenting upon her song, she shared, “A thread that runs through this is the poisoning of our water.” Revelation 11:18 reads, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants, the prophets, and the holy ones and those who fear your name, the small and the great alike, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (New American Bible, Revised Edition).
The 10-year-old, Ukiah Cordell of Charleston, said, “I used to love hiking up a mountain, letting the cool breeze blow away my negative thoughts. I still do. But now, it is not always so nice.” She concluded with a proclamation of hope, saying, “Mountaintop removal started here and we are going to end it here.”
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
Also, the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference is scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. This is a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded preservationists to address the topics covered extensively on this site. Learn about it and register for it here.
Also, if you use Facebook, please “like” our page: https://www.facebook.com/appalachianpreservationproject