Sun, Aug 09, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Mountaintop mining tests Obama’s green credentials

Environmental campaigners are frustrated by the US president’s failure to ban open-cast coal extraction, arguing it destroys mountains and forests

By Suzanne Goldenberg  /  THE GUARDIAN , WEST VIRGINIA

Technically, it is still possible to see the original white paint of Larry Gibson’s pick-up truck beneath the myriad of stickers declaring his love of West Virginia’s mountains and his opposition to coal mining.

But it would be a mistake to see the truck as mere conveyance. This is a mobile command center in Gibson’s one-man 25-year war against King Coal and the highly destructive mining method known as mountaintop removal.

Windscreen-mounted video camera in working order? Check. CB Radio on to listen for miners arriving for their shifts? Check. Luminous green T-shirt and cap for maximum visibility? Check. And Gibson, who is about 150cm and in his 60s, is usually armed — like many people in this part of West Virginia.

“The mountains in West Virginia are the oldest in the world and now they are gone in the blink of an eye,” he said. “I am the man who is holding the fort down here. I am the man holding them back.”

Mountaintop removal begins with the clear-cutting of entire forests and then the shearing off of up to 300 vertical meters of mountain peak. This exposes thin seams of coal that cannot easily be reached by underground tunnels.

Some 500 mountaintops across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have already been replaced by dry flat plateau, and 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath dumped rock and dirt. By 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 5,700km² of Appalachian forest will disappear.

At some sites the mining companies try to rebuild the silhouette of the old mountain, or replant. But mostly they leave the mountain missing its crest. In any event, nothing ever grows on the land again, locals say.

Kayford Mountain, or what Gibson calls his home place, is one of the frontline positions in an epic confrontation between the coal industry and a broad coalition of local activists, environmental organizations, national figures and Hollywood celebrities.

The struggle against mountaintop removal is proving an uncomfortable test of US President Barack Obama’s green credentials. The administration has frustrated environmentalists who had relied on the president to ban a practice that devastates landscapes and uproots hundreds of local communities.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr, an environmental lawyer and son of the assassinated presidential candidate, recently accused Obama of presiding over an “Appalachian apocalypse.”

James Hansen, the NASA scientist who coined the term global warming and who has become a passionate supporter of Gibson, demanded activists hold the president to account.

“We can not continue to give President Obama a pass on this much longer,” Hansen said.

Now Obama could be upstaged by the Senate, which has taken up a bill to ban mountaintop removal by prohibiting mining companies from dumping debris in streams. The bill has support from Republicans as well as Democrats.

The bill is too late for Gibson’s beloved Kayford Mountain. A short stroll from his campsite brings visitors to a view that looks like something out of a science fiction film. Giant trucks crawl over the earth on a vast yellow plateau below; at 5:10pm there is a loud blast.

“It looks to me like descriptions of places that got bombed in Hiroshima,” said Lora Webb, who lives in the nearly abandoned town of Twilight, which is surrounded by mountaintop mining. “It looks like what I would imagine if I was going to imagine what hell would look like: dry, dusty, no air or water.”

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