Big Coal digs in

Digging it

Courtesy morguefile


By Bev Braverman

Those of us who live in the coalfields know that no matter what the coal industry’s billboards and television ads promise, coal will never be a ‘cleaner or greener’ source of energy. We also know that the coal industry’s recent $35 million public relations campaign is simply an attempt to spin straw into gold—or, in this case, coal into ever more profit.

The truth is that the coal industry’s marketing campaign, with its promise of new, cleaner technologies, is simply the latest attempt to polish the tarnish off of its 150-year history of environmental destruction.

In our state’s rural communities, surface mining destroys farms and forests on a daily basis. Strangely, this destructive activity is not only permitted by our laws, but is actually overseen by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Surface mining is both ecologically and psychologically damaging. The ecological damage begins when the land is stripped of its trees and topsoil and then blasted or dug until the miners access the coal beneath. In this process, small springs and streams are often disrupted, requiring farmers and others living in rural areas to replace their water source with wells or tie-ins to public water supplies. In the interim water trucks haul public water to those affected, who then may be responsible for figuring out how to convey it from an outdoor water buffalo to their house, barn, and fields.

The psychological damage is more subtle. In best case scenario, a watchdog group makes residents aware that a mining application has been submitted to the DEP, giving a community time to request a public meeting. Citizens generally request that public meetings be held when working people can attend, but the DEP is more apt to hold meetings during the day when it’s more economical for the Department.

Although mining companies must advertise a public notice for four consecutive weeks in a newspaper “of general circulation,” which newspaper carries the notice is often a matter of disagreement between residents and DEP. Inadequate public notices and a general lack of information about how the public can participate in the permit process often makes it difficult for citizens to understand what is being proposed and the ramifications of that proposal.

Once a permit has been issued to the mining company, there is only a 300 foot buffer zone required between the nearest structure—imagine your house—and the bulldozers and blasting. After the initial blasting, the dust and the relentless noise of large machinery lowers adjacent property values and the spirits of area residents. Rocks have damaged houses far beyond this limit.

If your property is adjacent to the site and within 1000 or 2500 feet, you will be allotted a few protections under the law. If your home is within 1000 feet of the site, the coal company must test your water at least six times throughout the year. If the mining destroys your water supply, the coal company must replace it. How it replaces a pristine spring or well is a matter of much debate in the coalfields. If your home is within 2500 feet of the site, in order to preserve your rights from blasting damage, you must allow a coal company representative to inspect the walls inside your house for existing cracks. Theoretically, if your house is damaged by the blasting, the company will compensate you. In reality, DEP’s “Blasting Complaint Protocol,” states “The Department has no authority to require repair of or compensation for the damage. Repair and compensation are strictly a civil matter between the property owner and the operator.” Comment and response documents from the DEP also state that:

• “The Department has no regulatory authority to control hours of operation on a mine site. Any such limitations are through local zoning restrictions.” (Note that if your municipality doesn’t have such an ordinance, the mining company can work evenings and weekends.)

• “The Department does not require property line surveys.”

• “Undeveloped springs are not developed for water supplies for human consumption, agriculture, commercial use, or industrial use and do not fall under the definitions of a water source to be protected from being diminished in quantity.”

• “The Department has no regulatory authority or control over traffic, except on the site. Any traffic concerns on public roads must be directed to PennDot, Pennsylvania State Police, or township authorities. . .” Many coalfield communities are rural and poor. They do not have the resources to monitor this traffic.

Those of us who live in the coalfields, who have experienced damage to our homes, our water supplies, and our environment, know that coal is not ‘clean’ or ‘green.’ The coal industry may be attempting to spin lies into truth, but there is one thing we know: they cannot spin coal into water or peace of mind.

Beverly Braverman is the executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association.


Published April 2008