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Stripped! Arch Coal and Mountaintop Removal Mining

October 30, 2009

Support Climate Ground Zero’s October 30 national day of action against mountaintop removal mining

Earlier this month, the EPA moved to withdraw approval of what would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia when it charged Arch Coal company with failing to adequately address threats to the Clean Water Act posed by the project. The project is a 2,300-acre mountaintop removal mine that local residents and environmentalists have been fighting for more than a decade. The mine is the largest of twelve proposed or authorized mining projects in the area, which would pollute nearly 36 miles of streams in the West Virginia Coal River sub-basin.

A letter to the Army Corps of Engineers from EPA regional administrator Bill Early notes the agency’s “very serious concerns regarding the scale and extent of significant environmental and water quality impacts” of Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine #1 project. EPA had been warning since September that Arch Coal and the Corps needed to do more to reduce the environmental impact of the operation, and in the October letter the agency gave the parties 15 days to meet with regulators. If EPA is not satisfied, it warned it would issue a public notice of the project’s adverse impacts, which would be the first step towards an official EPA veto of the Corp’s approval.

Predictably, apologists for the coal industry claimed that an EPA veto of the Arch Coal project would cost the area hundreds of lost jobs and hurt the local economy. But when confronted with the fact that the mine employed just 23 people in 2007, coal booster and County Commissioner Art Kirkendoll claimed that taxes from mining would help boost tourism.

While welcoming the EPA letter, local activists cautioned that just a day earlier, the agency announced a deal with a Patriot Coal company subsidiary that allows it to move forward with massive expansion plans for its West Virginia operation. EPA and the company claimed the deal would protect hundreds of jobs.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal is the nation’s second-largest coal producer, with more than two dozen mines in Appalachia and the Rocky Mountains, including in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Following the company’s 2004 purchase of competitor Triton Coal, a deal that was proceeded by FTC charges of price-fixing among Arch and other Powder River Basin coal companies, Arch’s revenue rose by a third and profits soared by 581%. In 2008, Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer took home $6.56 million, including $94,224 for personal use of a company plane, $13,608 for personal financial planning services, $9,675 for dues to his private club, and $98,943 to pay personal taxes.

Arch Coal has been a leading member of the industry’s “clean coal” propaganda campaigns. In the late 1990’s, the company’s slick ads promised environmentally safe mining, with photos of deer grazing in supposedly reclaimed sites. In response to the recent industry ads, the Reality Coalition challenges the notion of “clean coal” in this video directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

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