Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection announced new guidelines relating to mountaintop removal coal mine permits, and the coal industry promotion group FACES of Coal was right on the case. FACES promptly issued a blistering press release lambasting the EPA for attacking the Appalachian economy with “as dangerous and threatening an action as this region has ever seen.”
Now, it’s no surprise that a group like FACES of Coal would come out with both guns blazing, considering its mission to promote the coal mining industry. But seriously, “dangerous and threatening?” After all, it’s not like the EPA is proposing to blow up hundreds of mountains and bury thousands of miles of mountain streams right here in the U.S.A. – or is FACES of Coal arguing that Appalachia needs more mountains blown up? I’m so confused!
Yes, it is a bit confusing. Mountaintop removal is a specific type of surface mining operation that involves literally blowing up a mountain to get at seams of coal. That also involves filling nearby valleys and streams with the resulting debris. Now, on the face of it that seems like a really bad thing, but the “supporters” link on the FACES website makes it all clear. Before mining, the mountains were “straight up and down, with craggy rocks and no accessibility,” but now “they are more visually pleasing and more physically accessible.” We need more of that! Anyways, that’s according to a FACES supporter. For an alternate opinion, you can check out a 45-second trailer for Kilowatt Ours, a documentary featuring people who live near mountaintop removal operations.
Mountaintop Removal and the Appalachian Economy
FACES is focused on the potential job loss involved in complying with EPA’s new guidelines, which are designed to protect water quality in streams. There is no denying that coal is a big employer in Appalachia. It’s also a fact that Appalachia is chronically impoverished, and the poverty rate within that region closely tracks coal mining operations, so it’s not clear that the coal economy has been a good long term bet. In fact, a 2005 report from the Appalachian Regional Commission stated that “employment in the mining industry is one of the best predictors of poverty” in the region. In addition the coal industry itself has been sucking jobs out of the region by adopting more mountaintop removal, which is far less labor intensive than conventional underground mining.
What’s Up with FACES?
Getting back to FACES (which stands for Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security), it’s not clear that the organization is particularly concerned about the local Appalachian economy over the long run. Though billing itself as “an alliance of more than 60,000 people from all walks of life” (grassroots much?), the organization is promoted through a D.C. lobbying firm called Adfero, which runs public relations for a laundry list of corporate clients all over the map. The FACES website launched with faces culled from iStockphotos which doesn’t exactly support its grassroots cred. Industry watcher Ken Ward Jr. of Coal Tattoo at the West Virginia Gazette put it bluntly: “let’s not pretend that FACES of Coal is some grassroots uprising.” So, what’s the motivation behind FACES’s hysterical reaction to EPA’s new guidelines? Start with President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget that would cut more than $2 billion in coal subsidies, and just follow the money.
Green Jobs and Appalachia
The Rust Belt is a chilling example of what can happen when a one-industry region loses its economic base, but after languishing for years the Rust Belt economy is beginning to welcome new green jobs by the armload. Appalachia’s coal economy is headed for further decline, as more domestic coal fired power plants turn to major alternative sources like solar energy while emerging renewable energy sources (cow pie power!) eat away at the edges. With its stunning mountain forests (at least the ones that haven’t been made more “accessible” yet), Appalachia is perfectly positioned to make an even more powerful transition to new sustainable industries.
Image: Mask by Liber on flickr.com.