Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Reclamation, whistleblowers, & rare lichen

One muggy summer afternoon four years ago, a man named Carl Shoupe and I drove along a windy road to the top of Black Mountain. A former coal miner and lifelong resident of Benham, Kentucky, Carl could navigate those roads with his eyes closed. Seven miles up, just across the Virginia state line, he pulled off to a gravel shoulder where there was a lookout. We walked to the edge and I expected to see a gorgeous view of the rolling Appalachians. But I saw nothing. No mountains, no rounded hills. Beneath the nothingness, there were black and brown shavings, mounds of rubble, dust, and soot — ghosts of former mountaintops.

Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land they use for surface mining — which includes mountaintop removal mining, strip mining, and open-pit mining — to remove any hazards, but they often file for deferrals and move on, never completing, or even starting, the job. Usually when we think of surface mining, Appalachia immediately comes to mind. But there are 6 million acres of abandoned mine land in the U.S., including in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Wyoming.

Last week, the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report revealing that the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSMRE) has been giving too much leeway to states in how they use federal money to reclaim those millions of acres, resulting in the misuse of funds. According to the report, many states aren’t fixing up the land at all. For instance, Mississippi and Louisiana spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for mine reclamation on administrative costs and non-coal related projects instead. “Since 2008, Mississippi has spent $336,063 on its [Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation fund] program, including $68,000 since its certification in 2014, but it has not made progress in reclaiming its four coal reclamation project areas.” Those four areas would have costed $21,000 to reclaim. Mississippi said it would be done by July 2015, but no work ever occurred.

Right around the time the report was announced, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers from Kentucky re-introduced the RECLAIM Act (which stands for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More) which will funnel $1 billion to the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund so mining sites can be cleaned up.

The legislation has been a long time coming. A similar bill was initially proposed in 2015 by former President Barack Obama under the “Power+ Plan,” with the idea that reclaiming mine sites could spur economic development with jobs in agriculture, renewable energy, or construction, instead of coal mining. In 2016, lawmakers from several coal-producing states brought the plan up again, calling it the RECLAIM Act. Grassroots campaigns garnered plenty of support for it; one pollfound that 89 percent of registered voters in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana supported the bill.

Although Sen. McConnell’s new version is being touted as a bipartisan success in Congress, there are a few snags: it doesn’t emphasize additional economic development to replace coal jobs or describe how the money will be distributed to ensure land is actually reclaimed. It doesn’t mandate citizen engagement in the processes. The bill also cites funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a government agency that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget eliminates.

Advocates continue to say that the RECLAIM Act is a start — a small victory for rural economies. But, like so many other grandeur plans from politicians to revitalize extractive industry towns, this one isn’t adding up. As I sifted through the OIG report and new legislation, wondering what might come of it, I was reminded of a phrase Carl used to say about abandoned surface mines: “There ain’t no way to put lipstick on that pig.”

Stories worth your time

For years, residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana said they were sick because of pollution from a nearby neoprene plant. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency informed them they were right. “Besides being a likely human carcinogen, chloroprene, the gas the plant has been releasing into this community for 48 years, is known to weaken immune systems and cause headaches, heart palpitations, anemia, stomach problems, impaired kidney function, and rashes. So the EPA’s news, bad as it was, provided a form of relief.” This Intercept story illustrates why we need the EPA.

After finishing her MFA program, writer Minda Honey road tripped through national parks on her way home to Kentucky. Her essay for Longreads assesses the oppressive whiteness of academia, of national parks, and of America. “In 10 hours I’d be in Louisville, Kentucky,” Honey wrote. “In four months Trump would be elected President. In six months the National Parks Service would go rogue and launch an alternative Twitter account, and amid all their praise for leading the revolution, I would wonder who exactly they were fighting to save the parks for.”

The number of working-age adults receiving disability went from 7.7 million to 13 million between 1996 and 2015 — and most of them were in rural areas. It’s another indicator of the widening gap between urban and rural America. The Washington Post visits Beaverton, Alabama to find out how people get so desperate they turn to disability checks.

A whistleblower named Dan Collins has been fighting Louisiana in a lawsuit over environmental violations he witnessed while working at the Department of Natural Resources. He won the suit and was supposed to be awarded $750,000, but still hasn’t received the money. WRKF interviewed Collins about it last week.

News flying under the radar

More conservative lawmakers and business leaders are making the case for carbon taxes. According to the Citizens Climate Lobby, a carbon fee and dividend policy in Arkansas “could result in a reduction of 30 million metric tons of carbon per year and monthly rebates of more than $200 per month per Arkansas household.”

An entire North Carolina swamp forest is about to be swallowed up by the sea, putting rare lichen species in jeopardy. To prevent that, scientists are planning to physically pluck and transport them to higher ground.

A Senate committee is moving forward with a bill to allow for pilot research on hemp production in rural Florida. 

At least five people in the South are dead after severe storms and tornadoes blewthrough Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

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