Using Documents to Report on Mountaintop Mining: When Coal Industry Officials and Business Leaders Complain about Coverage, 'The Only Way to Counter Such Pressures Is with Good, Solid Reporting.'

By Ward, Ken, Jr. | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Documents to Report on Mountaintop Mining: When Coal Industry Officials and Business Leaders Complain about Coverage, 'The Only Way to Counter Such Pressures Is with Good, Solid Reporting.'


Ward, Ken, Jr., Nieman Reports


My wife, Elizabeth, likes to tell people how I took her to a strip mine for one of our first dates. Usually, though, she leaves out the fact that it was her idea. It makes for a better story, I guess. It was July 1998, and I was in the midst of reporting a series of articles that would become the biggest story of my career: mountaintop removal coal mining. I'm sure I talked about it constantly--the huge shovels and dozers, barren hillsides, buried streams, and coalfield residents who live with gigantic blasts shaking their homes and dust clogging their lungs.

Elizabeth wanted to see what the big deal was. So we went on a little picnic to Kayford Mountain. It's a mountaintop removal site, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Charleston and the state's gold-domed capitol building. On top of the mountain, Larry Gibson tends his old family cemetery. White crosses dot the spot, at the head of Cabin Creek. At the end of a long ride up a battered dirt road, the cemetery sits as a solitary island of grass, brush and scattered trees among the strip-mined moonscape.

Larry's home place is surrounded on all sides by mountaintop removal. Various companies have mined thousands of acres in all directions. Larry's little cemetery is the last holdout. Everyone else sold to the mining companies. "I told the company they could have my right arm, but they couldn't have the mountain," Gibson told me on my first visit there in April 1997. "We're here, and we're here to stay. They just don't know it yet."

Within a few months, the company--and everybody else--knew it. Later that year, in August, Penny Loeb reported a stinging expose on mountaintop removal for U.S. News & World Report. "The costs are indisputable, and the damage to the landscape is startling to those who have never seen a mountain destroyed," Loeb wrote. "Indeed, if mining continues unabated, environmentalists predict that in two decades, half the peaks of southern West Virginia's blue-green skyline will be gone."

Now it's not like The Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette had never covered mountaintop removal before. My colleague, longtime investigator Paul Nyden, spent years uncovering coal-industry abuses and wrote numerous articles about mountaintop removal. But what Loeb's work did was to give the issue national prominence, and it prompted those of us at the Gazette to delve into it more deeply.

Was the situation as bad as Loeb portrayed it to be? More importantly, if it was, how had it gotten that way? In 1977, Congress passed a federal law to regulate strip mining. Was it not working? Were state and federal regulators falling down on the job?

A Watchdog Emerges

After I got the okay from my editors, I started the hard work of digging through the documents to try to answer these questions. I read the 1977 law--the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). I also read SMCRA's implementing regulations, the congressional history of the law, and as many law review articles on the subject as I could find. What I found became the basis for my stories: During arguments over SMCRA, Ken Hechler, then a Democratic congressman from West Virginia, tried to ban mountaintop removal altogether. As often happens, lawmakers compromised: mountaintop removal was allowed, but only under certain conditions.

Mountaintop removal is just what its straightforward name implies. Coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt--the stuff that used to be the mountains--is shoved into nearby valleys where it buries streams.

When Congress passed SMCRA, the lawmakers required coal operators to put strip-mined land back the way they found it. In legal terms, this means they must reclaim the land to its approximate original contour (AOC). Of course, when the top of a mountain is removed, achieving AOC is impossible. So lawmakers gave coal companies an option. …

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