Mountaintop Removal and Blanket Forts

Coloring Fort

I’ve been two weeks, no after checking the calendar it’s actually almost three weeks, telling myself that I needed to post to my blog.  But I couldn’t.  I was hurting.  I was depressed.  I was too angry.  You see, the day after I came back from vacation I attended a hearing of the Surface Mine Board of the Department of Environmental Protection regarding the Keystone Development #2.

The purpose of the hearing was to request a stay of the permit until additional public concerns and issues with the permit itself could be clarified.  The stay was denied and the hearing will be continued on August 11th regarding other issues we were hoping to address.

It’s not the board’s decision regarding the stay, nor the continuance that had me emotionally needing a blanket fort.  No, it was the attitudes of the DEP attorney and the attorneys for Keystone Development.  Condescending, arrogant, dismissive, mean-spirited, snarly, rude.  I was shocked.

I expected the DEP attorney to be impartial at the very least.  I mean, Department of Environmental Protection.  I guess I’m naive.  I thought they’d side on protecting the environment.

One of our experts pointed out that the watershed plan for the permit was based on a seven-year-old soil study and that a newer study had been available since December, 2013.  Using the information from the 2013 study, our expert shared, the watershed numbers for water run-off showed a 25-50% increase.  This is significant!  But the Keystone Development expert, while acknowledging that our experts’ math was correct, insisted that she could make the existing plan and numbers “work.”  Excuse me?  It’s not her home that could potentially be flooded!

The Keystone attorney made closing remarks that sounded more like a threat than closing remarks.  He slammed both palms on the table and reminded the surface mine board that the governor wouldn’t be happy to lose $2,000,000 in revenue.

I left the hearing feeling so very, very angry with nowhere to channel that anger.  I knew I couldn’t say anything to anyone at the hearing without damaging our attorneys’ case and reputation.  I don’t want to say or do anything that reflects poorly on the Kanawha Forest Coalition or any of the organizations that have been incredibly supportive.  I went into hermit mode.

Luckily, these folk from KFC, OVEC, RAMPS and other organizations understand and won’t let me hide for long.  They encourage my self-care and validate the extreme emotional highs and lows of this journey.

When this reality looms over your life:

Our home is about 2000 feet from the northern phase of the Keystone Development Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine. Photo courtesy of Viv/Southwings

Our home is about 2000 feet from the northern phase of the Keystone Development Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine.
Photo courtesy of Viv/Southwings

it becomes vital to find the positive. 

 This is a personal blog and these are my impressions and my understanding of the situation.

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Everywhere I Go…

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I’ve been on vacation.  I tried to take a vacation from the stress and frustration of fighting our new neighbor, the Keystone Development #2 Mountaintop Removal Coal Mine.  I discovered that wherever I go, this issue now goes with me.  People ask about it, which is an educational opportunity that I won’t pass up.  My friends and family probably heard more, and now know more, than they wanted to.  I’d like to apologize for that, but I can’t really.  I think we should become more conscious of the true costs of our energy consumption.

On the last day of my vacation I went to an amazing dinner at a local restaurant, The Bluegrass Kitchen.  They were sponsoring a Haiku event.  The above image was mine.  My dear daughter read it and said, “Wow, mom, that’s depressing.”  She was right.  I consciously moved the issue to the back of my mind to enjoy the food, drink and especially, the company of my spouse and out-of-state family.

But it’s never really gone.  Every day there is something to do regarding the fight.  I can’t apologize for being, honestly, obsessed, by something so important.  It’s hard for me to understand why everyone isn’t.

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Once Aware…

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I’m on vacation.  Far away from any coal mine.  But I can’t really get away.  I brought study material (that’s on me) to enjoy (?) on my son’s back porch with a cup of chai on this sunny summer day.  Email reminds me that an informational meeting needs to be publicized on Facebook.  Son urges me to connect my blog to my brand new Twitter account to share my blog further.

But it goes deeper than that.

I can’t really get away because now I am awake to some of the true costs of the electricity that I use every day.  I love my tech gadgets.  No, I SERIOUSLY love my tech gadgets.  But now I know that especially in Appalachia, someone’s groundwater has been polluted to bring me this electricity.  A mountaintop is gone, destroyed for the coal it contains, to fire up a coal fired electric plant.  A community’s air is fouled.  A homeowner’s home has lost all of it’s financial value because of a neighboring mine.  Someone is struggling with health problems due to pollutants and stress from living near a mine.  And I’m aware that there are additional costs that I don’t really know about yet.

I am aware and I can’t stop being so.

Coal is safe.  “Clean Coal” is achievable.  Pollutants from coal mining are strictly regulated. Mountaintop Removal sites are left better than before.

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I Used to Love the Smell of a Campfire

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Image from “How to Destroy a Forest Habitat

For the past few days, stepping outside, especially first thing in the morning, the scent of a wood burning fire is on the breeze through the hollow.  I know my neighbors aren’t burning anything and there isn’t anyone other than the Senior Ranger for Kanawha State Forest upwind of us.  He’s not burning anything either.

I suspect that the Keystone Development #2 coal mine has stared phase one and is clear cutting all the timber and burning it.  I can’t prove this without trespassing on mine land.  Or checking Google Earth and seeing if there is a recent satellite image.

Typically, they cut all of the trees and bulldoze them over the side (filling the valley/hollow) and set them on fire.  The wood is not sold for lumber, mulched to feed the topsoil during reclamation, or given away as free fuel for residents in the area who still heat with wood burning stoves.  It’s simply burned.

But I’m not sure what they are doing at KD#2.  You see, the permit doesn’t allow them to fill the hollows/valleys surrounding the permit area.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing so.  Often, according to the research I’ve been doing, they do what they want and simply absorb the fines into the cost of the job.  The fines are so minimal that they are not a deterrent.  There are no cameras on the work site.  So unless an inspector just happens to stop up there, if they are bulldozing the trees over the side, no one will know.  Honestly makes me wish I had access to a drone with a camera.

We can put surveillance cameras in the workplace.  At traffic crossings.  On our ATM’s.  But not on the property of a mining permit that has some very specific restrictions.  This makes no sense to me.

None of this makes any sense to me.

It breaks my heart to even think about the destruction of the trees.  I’m reminded of Treebeard from “Lord of the Rings”:

Treebeard: [after seeing the torn-down forest around Isengard]
Many of these trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn…
Pippin: I’m sorry Treebeard.
Treebeard: They had voices of their own…

 

 

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Riding the MTR Pendulum

Any time spent not focusing on educating people about Mountaintop Removal coal mining, or on canvassing our community, calling elected officials, writing here on my blog or attending meetings feels like guilty, stolen time.  No matter what I’m doing, my activity, my thoughts are interrupted by something else I need to do to stop this mine and save our home.  Just now, I stopped writing to send a quick email to our attorney.  Every day, all day, is like that.  I’m doing laundry and making phone calls.  It feels like I’m doing everything (I’m not).  It feels like it’s all up to me (it’s not).  It feels like no one else is helping (patently not true).  I can’t do enough.

Or, I do nothing.  Awash in hopelessness.  “I wonder if I’ll be able to open our windows to the bird song and the breeze this time next year.”  “I wonder if I’ll be able to drink our water.”  “I wonder if my spouse’s COPD will flair.”  “I wonder if my father-in-law’s Asbestosis will flair.” “What’s the point.  No one wins against coal.” “The mine complex is only five miles from the state capitol building – kind of says it all.”  “WHY DOES NO ONE CARE?”  Self-pity and despair.  I loathe it.

All of us, me, my spouse and my father-in-law had a conversation where we all admitted to feeling this way.  Up one minute, and not just down, but all the way down, the next.  We committed to not taking it out on each other.  To remember that we’re in this together.  We’re driving each other in this struggle and making allowances.

But we’re not stopping.

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WV DEP: Who do they protect?

ImageIf you go out to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protections’ website, specifically the page for the Division of Mining and Reclamation, you will notice that it says “Our Mission” and then nothing.  No mission statement.  It’s difficult to determine exactly what they do.  I know that by law they approve, regulate, and inspect the surface mine permits.  But what, exactly, does that mean for our neighborhood?

We requested a meeting with the DEP.  I called and expressed some of our most pressing concerns and the gentleman I spoke with said he would pull together some experts to answer our questions.  We were limited to six people.  Four of us went.  The DEP had, I don’t remember exactly, between eight and twelve people.

Our most pressing concerns were:

  • flooding – we don’t believe that their surface run-off analysis is accurate
  • contamination of our well water (all five homes are on well water)
  • damage from fly rock
  • damage from dust
  • damage from our rock wall becoming unstable due to vibration

The ridge (which we are calling Mt. Middlelick)  on which the mining site is located, currently drains into creeks running on both the eastern and western boundaries of this permit.  Those creeks feed into the creek which defines our hollow.  Our creek feeds into Davis creek, affecting the residents of Loudendale and Davis Creek.  The area is already considered a flood zone.  The permit only requires a “25 year flood” prevention plan.  But no one could tell us clearly how a “25 year flood” event is defined.  Common sense says if you remove all of the trees and undergrowth, and all of the topsoil, the rain water / snow melt has no where to go but into the watershed.  And there is nothing to slow it down.  No one at the DEP said it directly, but we were all left with the impression that nothing would change in the permit UNTIL it was proven to be a problem.  Lucky us.

We were told to mark measurements on our bridge into the hollow, to keep a daily journal and make note daily of the water level in the creek.  And to purchase a rain gauge.

We are very concerned that our well water and ground water will become contaminated because of the watershed issue.  They will monitor our well (our well is the monitoring well) every three months.  They won’t be monitoring for heavy metals, which I don’t understand.  If our water should become contaminated we have to prove that the mine contaminated it.  WE have to prove they contaminated it.  If anyone spots chemicals in the creek water as part of our daily monitoring, a call can be made to DEP, but unless a DEP inspector actually SEES the contaminant, well, nothing happens.

At the meeting we asked about Fly Rock – the debris that can fall from the explosives used to get to the coal.  DEP gave conflicting answers.  We were told that we shouldn’t expect any.  We were also told that debris can fly as far as 3000 ft.   They also told us that 1000 ft is considered the minimum safe distance.  Finally, we were told that by law nothing is to leave the permit boundaries.  I’m still researching to see what the truth is regarding fly rock. But they agreed that three of the hiking trails at Kanawha State Forest would be at risk for hikers, bikers, horseback riders to be struck by fly rock.  We were stunned!  We asked them how they were going to make certain that users of the Forest were safe?  The DEP said that was the responsibility of the mining company, not them.

And if our homes are damaged by fly rock, or by blasting vibrations, we have to prove that the mine is responsible and that we (or our insurance companies) have to sue the mining company.  The issue would go before a third party insurance examiner who would determine if it should go to arbitration.  If the claim goes to arbitration, there is a $600 fee which is split with the coal company.  DEP is not involved.

So.  We monitor our own creek levels.  If we want to make sure we don’t have heavy metals in our water we either have to fight to get the DEP to provide monitoring equipment, or find a way to get it through another agency.  If we believe our groundwater is being polluted we have to first prove that it is being contaminated and then prove the contamination is due to the mine.  If we believe our air quality is polluted from dust, same thing.  Plus, unless an inspector visually sees an excess of dust from the mine, personally, the DEP will do nothing.  Videos, photographs, are not considered valid proof.

Are you noting the pattern here?  The burden of protecting our homes, our health and the health of our community and environment is on us, the citizens.  So, who does the Department of Environmental Protection protect?  Not this:

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Meeting Mt. Middlelick

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Tonight, members of the Loudendale and Davis Creek community met at the Kanawha Trail Club which sits at the foot of what will be the KD#2 mine extension, or what we’ve begun calling Mt. Middlelick.  I wish I could fully convey just how beautiful the log clubhouse, wooden footbridge and campfire area are.  Or how my heart ached just thinking about how everything, just at the top of the ridge directly in front of me, will be gone.  Stripped.  No trees.  No topsoil.  Not even torn earth – torn rock.  How can that devastation possibly be so close and not destroy this green idyllic place?

The moon reminded me just how small, how insignificant I am.  Small and insignificant I may be, but I’m going to do all I can to save Mt. Middlelick.  It looks like more and more people are going to help.  I am hopeful.

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