In the last glacial period, which ended roughly 10,000 years ago, the native plant and animal kingdoms of North America were all but wiped off the face of the earth. But thanks to one small pocket of temperate forest (called a refugium) just far enough south to survive, the entire continent was able to be reseeded and repopulated.
That range of mountains is Appalachia.
It is the most biodiverse temperate forest on earth, with over 3,000 native plant species and 1,000 animal species. You could call it the genetic safe deposit box of North America.
But just 10 days ago that precious pocket of biodiversity was dealt a serious blow, by none other than the newly appointed (and so far environmentally forward) head of the Environmental Protection Agency -- Lisa Jackson. 42 more permits for mountaintop removal were issued.
Last week I had the good fortune to attend an NRDC event with Robert Kennedy Jr. who spoke out against what he is calling "a crime against humanity" and the "greatest act of environmental destruction ever perpetrated by mankind."
And it's all completely and totally illegal.
Under the Clean Water Act, natural waterways which are held as common property of the people of the Unites Stated of America, are protected from illegal dumping. The filling, rerouting and pollution of natural waterways are all strictly forbidden by federal law.
Yet with pressure from the coal industry, the EPA led by Bush-appointed Stephen Johnson, cleared the way for dirty coal by a twisted redefinition of the word "fill" and a new permitting policy that would allow coal companies to apply directly to the Army Corps of Engineers, circumnavigating the strict water protections guaranteed under the Clean Water Act.
The result -- 1,200 miles of waterways are now permanently buried or rendered sterile from coal sludge, and more than 500 square miles of the world's most biodiverse temperate forest has been destroyed.
And when I say destroyed, I mean "Kablam!" gone. Mountaintop removal makes the clear-cutting of old growth rainforest seem like a walk in the park. At least logging leaves the top soil and streams relatively in tact (though highly eroded). When a mountaintop removal is complete, all that is left is a rocky moonscape incapable of supporting any form of life ... ever.
And that life includes the local communities who gain their livelihood from the abundant resources the forest once provided. In the wake of mountaintop mining, it's not just the animals that are endangered. It's the humans, too.
Unlike typical mining operations, mountaintop coal mining requires very little manpower, offers few jobs, and leaves the neighboring communities impoverished.
You would think that under Obama's leadership things would have changed. After all he reversed Bush's midnight regulation allowing free-for-all dumping of coal waste by waterways.
I don't think that Kennedy is overstating it too much when he said that this is tantamount to an act of war. Current estimates by NRDC put the death toll at approximately 60,000 deaths per year due to illegal coal emissions (PDF), approximately 20 times the death toll in the World Trade Center attacks each year.
The salt in the wound is that taxpayers are largely footing the bill for coal companies like Massey -- not only for the actual coal extraction (historically about $9 billion per year in subsidies) but for the dizzying cleanup bill that future generations will be left to pay.
Right now a new bill has been drafted called the Appalachia Restoration Act. It has strong support in the House (over 150 co-sponsors) but NRDC is working hard to get sponsors in the Senate.
This is not a regional issue. The reason America is called "the Beautiful" is because of Appalachia. In many ways it is the "heart" of America and we can't let it be lost for a few month's worth of coal.
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