Massey and a Hard Place 

Obama takes a stand against mountaintop removal and coal producers such as Massey Energy.

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After months of review, the Obama administration is taking action that could make it more difficult for coal operators to undertake controversial mountaintop removal mining methods.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding up 79 permits involving the mining practice in which entire tops of mountains in Central Appalachia are shorn off to reach thin coal seams that can intertwine like strands of spaghetti. As much as 800 feet of a mountain can be dynamited and hauled away with remains filling creek beds and polluting watersheds, activists say.

Richmond-based Massey Energy, one the largest practitioners of mountaintop removal, is constantly under attack by environmentalists for its hard-nosed defense of the practice.

The nation's No. 4 coal producer, Massey and its subsidiaries have operations in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Several of its West Virginia mines are involved in the permit delays. Company officials did not return telephone calls.

While environmental groups are cheering the decision, coal industry groups are fuming.

“The action suggests that the Obama administration is opening a new front against the coal industry,” says Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association in Washington. “If their intention is to discourage coal investment, they made a very big miscalculation.”

Popovich says that holding up the 79 permits will tie up 34 percent of total U.S. coal production. None of the permits involve mines in Virginia. 

Coal companies say mountaintop removal is a more efficient and cheaper way to reach thin coal seams than deep mining. But environmentalists counter that the practice destroys watersheds because waste is dumped in creeks. It changes the landscapes of mountains, alters wildlife habitat and, they say, affects people living nearby with tremors and dust from blasting.

Although the permits are being reviewed, the agency's action doesn't mean they'll be denied. Many will be sent back to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees waterway pollution. Some permits could be granted if altered, Wells says. But the delays represent a major shift from the Bush administration years, which saw a more relaxed attitude toward strip mining regulation while Obama promised tougher oversight.

Even so, environmentalists are split as to how far mountaintop removal should go. “I don't think we need tougher regulation, but enforcement of the regulations that are already on the books,” says Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va. A member of the Coal River Mountain Watch, Vernon Haltom, says that “mountaintop removal must be abolished, not regulated.”

The permit delays come as Obama officials announce they're pushing ahead with another battle that engages coal companies and some electric utilities: carbon dioxide emissions. The administration announced that it isn't waiting for Congress and is pushing ahead with new rules to stem carbon emissions, which are believed to contribute to global warming.

Calling such efforts “a hoax and a Ponzi scheme,” Massey's combative chief executive, Donald Blankenship, told Forbes.com that “if you did away with the entire U.S. carbon emissions, the Chinese and the Asian community would replace it in just three years.”


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