Mr. Kevin Richardson
Just Within Reach Foundation
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Mr. Chairman, Honorable Committee members, guests… I’m here today to talk about the systematic destruction of one of the most beautiful, productive and historic regions of our country – my home state of Kentucky, the mountains of West Virginia and Tennessee, and the other areas of Appalachia where the practice of mountaintop coal mining has taken over.
In the midst of their giant lakes of coal sludge that sometimes burst without warning, their constant dynamiting that shakes homes from their foundations, their transformation of forested mountain ranges into flat, gravel-covered moonscapes, and their contamination of well water and aquifers, coal companies engage in the practice of “valley fill” – our reason for being here today.
For years, the Corps of Engineers has routinely issued permits to coal companies in the Southeast and Appalachia, allowing them to fill valleys and waterways with “overburden” from their mountaintop-removal coal extraction operations. Overburden, along with coal sludge, are the byproducts of extracting and washing coal, before shipping it to electric generating plants around the country. EPA officials, residents living in the shadows of the mines and citizen groups have questioned the validity and legality of the Corp’s decision to issue such permits -- permits for an activity that dumps mining waste into the region’s streams, rivers and valleys. Hundreds of millions of tons of industrial mining byproduct are pushed into the valleys surrounding coal extraction sites, to date, burying over 1,500 miles of headwater streams in West Virginia and my home state. Valley fills destroy the spawning grounds that support our recreational fishing industry, they contaminate our drinking water and they trash our thriving tourist industry that relies on the natural beauty of our area.
In April, a Federal District Court judge finally brought some needed attention to this issue by ruling that the Corps’ practice of issuing valley fill permits violates Congress’ intent in the Clean Water Act and its restrictions on using waterways for industrial waste disposal. The Administration’s recent attempt to circumvent the Clean Water Act by rewriting the rules to define coal extraction waste as “fill” is a nice gesture to their friends in the industry. But it clearly exceeds the Administration’s legal authority granted under the Act. Such a gesture cannot alter the meaning of the LAW. I urge you to make this clear to the President and his agencies.
The bottom line is that we have an industry that has thrived, not from honest business practices in a free market, but from passing its real costs to the people of Appalachia and the rest of the United States… with subsidies in the form of illegal permits from the Corps of Engineers and other agencies that are supposed to protect us. Ending the practice of valley fills and making coal companies manage their industrial waste like any other industry is not about hugging trees and worshipping mountains. It’s about making coal compete for our energy dollar on an equal playing field with natural gas, hydroelectric, solar and wind. It’s about recognizing that WE own the streams and rivers of this country and that WE own the fish and other resources in those waterways. Destroying the rivers, the fisheries, the forests and the mountains through irresponsible coal extraction, as well as the coal-produced acid rain deposition in your home state, Mr. Chairman, is no different than kicking down the doors of our homes and walking out with an armful of our valuables – theft is theft.
I am not a scientist, but I do know what I’ve seen on flights over the coalfields. The historic resources that sustained Daniel Boone, the original Cherokees and generations of mountain people are being converted on a mammoth scale into flat, lifeless plateaus. The first time I flew over the area at 5,000 feet, I thought I would see a few scarred peaks. Instead, I saw the entire horizon filled with mountains with their tops blown off, huge lakes of toxic sludge and piles of waste filling every valley around the mines.
I came here today to bring attention to an Administration policy and a Corps of Engineers practice on valley fills that is completely misguided and gives no consideration to the lives of generations to come. When I move back home to raise a family on my farm in Kentucky, I want my kids to be able to fish and swim in the same places I grew up. I ask you, our leaders, to look beyond the political clout of the coal lobby and do what’s right for the forgotten Appalachian region.
In closing, I would like to personally invite each of you to take a flight with me over the coalfields and see firsthand how our future is being robbed.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your invitation to speak before the committee and your willingness to bring this difficult issue to light.