July 25, 2008

Congressmen Fly Over Mountaintop Mining Sites

By Cassondra Kirby-Mullins, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Jul. 25--HAZARD -- Two congressmen flew over dozens of mountaintop mining sites Friday and spoke with residents living deep in the central Appalachian coalfields, in what community activists said was a first for Eastern Kentucky

U.S. representatives Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Norm Dicks, of Washington, flew from Washington, D.C. to the Wendell H. Ford Airport in Hazard. They flew over several mining sites in West Virginia and Kentucky before landing at the airport about 10:30 a.m.

After a brief meeting with Appalachian residents and members of the media who had gathered at the airport, the congressmen boarded the plane at about 11:20 a.m. to fly over about a dozen more mining sites in Eastern Kentucky.

On board with them were representatives from the Office of Surface Mining, as well as from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that opposes mountaintop removal.

Chandler, D-Versailles, described the visit as "a fact finding trip."

The trip is significant because Dicks chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental matters, giving him power over the budget of the Office of Surface Mining.

It is the first time a member of Congress in such a position has come to Kentucky to view large-scale surface mining and meet with opponents.

While flying into the airport, Dicks said he was especially struck by how large some of the mining sites were. Dicks said he made the trip to Kentucky after repeated requests from Chandler, a fellow Democrat on the subcommittee.

"I'm here to learn," Dicks said. "There's a lot of concern in the state about the extent of mountaintop mining and how the environmental issues are dealt with. We are trying to find out as much as we can so next year, as we look at the budget, we will be in a better position to ask questions and do our oversight responsibility."

Dicks said he will look at whether the OSM is doing its job adequately, and whether it has the money and staff to do its job.

Touring active mines

Later Friday, the congressmen are expected to take a bus tour led by International Coal Group Inc. of an active mining site in Montgomery Creek in Perry County. ICG officials denied a request by the Herald-Leader to accompany the congressmen in the tour.

Several Appalachian residents and members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth gathered at the Hazard airport prepared to share their experiences and speak to the congressmen.

They fight the practice mostly because of the destruction they say it brings. As miners blast away mountaintops and dump leftover debris in neighboring valleys -- often burying natural streams -- they pollute and destroy a diverse ecosystem that can never be replaced, they said Friday.

Those who live in communities where clunky coal trucks wind down roads at all hours and miners blast away at seams miles atop mountains, said they are tired of the thick, sticky dust that coats their gardens and their lungs. The blasting shakes and sometimes causes cracks in their homes and has been known to change the underground landscape, polluting water wells or causing them to go dry. Deep in the mountains, city water is not available to many.

"We think it speaks to how serious the problem has become that Congressman Chandler and Chairman Dicks have made the trip from Washington to see for themselves how pervasive the abuse by the mine industry has become on Kentucky's mountains, forests and streams and the people," said Doug Doerrfeld, chairman of the group. "We hope this leads to an ongoing conversation and more fact finding."

Doerrfeld said he hopes the visit leads to the passage of the Clean Water Protection Act in Washington and the passage of the Stream Saver bill during the next Kentucky General Assembly session. Chandler and Dicks are sponsors of both.

Jobs and flat land

Industry officials say that mining creates jobs -- in areas where there are not many other jobs -- and creates flat land in an area where there is little of it available for development outside flood-prone areas. They point to such developments as the airport, hospital and Wal-Mart in Hazard -- all built on mountaintop mining sites.

Bernie Faulkner, 60, of Hazard, said that mining gets a bad name from the media and others who seem to focus only on active mining sites.

"We all agree that active mining is ugly," Faulkner said. "It's like an open heart on the table during surgery, but what they put it back to is, in some cases, better and more beautiful than before."

Faulkner says former mining sites have led to great adventure tourism opportunities for Eastern Kentucky, noting the popular horseback riding and all-terrain vehicle trails in Knott County and elsewhere that have been created on former mountaintop mining sites.

Earlier this month, the two congressmen had planned to fly over mountaintop sites, but canceled the trip because the plane's battery was dead.

"Congressman Chandler has been trying to bring this issue to people's attention," said Denis Fleming, chief of staff for Chandler. "He's concerned about it."


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