October 26, 2008 at 6:56AM
by Jim DiPeso
Rural values, family, and tradition are the warp and woof of conservative messaging. For better or worse, Sarah Palin has hit those hot buttons repeatedly at campaign rallies where the cultural prejudices of Big Media windbags are distinctly unwelcome.
Nothing could be more destructive of those conservative values than mountaintop removal coal mining. The high explosives and draglines that are gouging an alien topography onto West Virginia and neighboring states also are butchering old ways of life in the mountains.
The Bush administration has proposed a rule that would exacerbate the damage by easing stream buffering requirements. Since those requirements are largely honored in the breach, the rule would legitimize what has been going on anyway.
But it's not just Republicans who kowtow to mountaintop removal. At a Society of Environmental Journalists conference October 18, Congressman Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, listed all the great things that flattened mountains can be used for. Imagine the shopping centers that could be built, said Rahall.
You would have thought that Richard Pombo was still chairing the committee.
King Coals political power is such that both sides of the aisle have largely averted eyes to the noise, dust, pollution, fear, and heartache that mountaintop removal has spread in Appalachian communities.
When the tops of mountains are turned into overburden and dumped into valleys, much more than streams are lost.
Toxic metals fill the drainage water that runs downhill from valley fills, contaminating the fisheries that have fed mountain families for generations.
Forests that are backdrops of community tales and kinfolk memories, of ginsenging and medicinal plant gathering, have disappeared, along with the diversity that is a botanists paradise.
Blasting and flyrock damages houses and churches. Overweight coal trucks grind up narrow roads. Hanging over home life is a cloud of fear that a valley fill or sludge impoundment will crack and floodwaters will sweep lives away. Parents make children sleep fully clothed when it rains so they can buy a few seconds of time if they must evacuate.
Yet coal jobs are among the few ways to support a family and coal revenues pay for local services in those parts. Fear of losing jobs can strop community tensions around mountaintop removal to a sharp, angry edge. Fear of upsetting Massey, Arch Coal, and other operators that use mountaintop removal to cut costs have made electeds and regulators go wobbly about enforcing environmental standards.
Both John McCain and Barack Obama have spoken out in opposition to mountaintop removal. McCain has pledged to end it.
If the peoples choice is Obama, as most polls seem to indicate, conservationists who have tightly embraced his candidacy while overlooking his kind words about the coal industry should challenge him to help Appalachia find a way out of the ecological and socio-economic dead end of mountaintop removal.
In the meantime, conservatives ought to think more deeply about the meaning of rural values, family and tradition.