BOONE COUNTY, W.Va. - At a little over 3,000 feet above sea level, Kayford Mountain once presided over a jagged network of wooded valleys and hollows in the forbiddingly rugged terrain of southern West Virginia.
Today it looks like the moon, and the top of it is a good 800 feet lower than it was a few years ago.
That's 800 feet and dropping.
Because veins of valuable low-sulfur coal lie inside it, Kayford Mountain is being systematically cut down by Arch Coal Co. of St. Louis.
Countless tons of "overburden," the dirt and dry gray rock that lies between layers of coal, is being blasted into those surrounding valleys so that huge machines can haul out the coal.
The technique, known as mountaintop removal mining, occurs under a legal cloud that the Bush administration is about to remove.
A proposed federal rule that would have legalized mountaintop removal coal mining was abandoned by the Clinton administration after it provoked an estimated 17,000 protest letters.
But documents filed in a federal court case in Charleston, the state capital, show that the Bush administration has decided to resurrect the abandoned Clinton rule.
When that happens, sometime this month, any question about the legality of mountaintop removal mining will be eliminated, according to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But the controversy the practice causes in West Virginia will not be over.
While environmentalists fume over the destruction of mountains and the obliteration of valley streams, coal companies and some local officials point to new development and say they are proud of what is happening here.
Only a few miles from the Hobet 21 mine currently responsible for the removal of Kayford Mountain, Arch Coal plans to open an 18-hole golf course where a mountaintop was removed at the Mingo-Logan mine. It has opened an industrial park where Hobet 07 was mined.
"One of the problems people have had in developing southern West Virginia is the fact that it is so mountainous," said John R. Snyder, an Arch spokesman. "In this very, very rugged terrain, it's hard to find building sites for a changing economy. We've tried to partner with local development groups to help them solve some of these problems."
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says mountaintop removal mining is a carefully engineered process that sometimes improves the quality of valley streams while it is making jagged mountaintops accessible.
"I'm not going to try to dress it up and try to make it sound like it's better when we get through, but we make every attempt to prevent any kind of negative impact," he said.
He said coarse rock is laid in the valleys before fill material, "just the same as you get out of your yard when you dig a hole to plant a tree," is dumped on top of it. The rock allows streams to continue flowing under the tons of "valley fill," he said.
But environmentalists see nothing about mountaintop removal that improves West Virginia.
'An absurd idea'
"That's an absurd idea," snapped Vivian Stockman, outreach chairwoman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "It's now up to 300,000 acres that they have destroyed, and it's a disaster."
Disaster or development, a U.S. district judge ruled in 1999 that mountaintop removal mining violated the federal Clean Water Act. The court ruled that the Corps of Engineers did not have authority to issue the permits it had been handing out for the mining operations, and that the EPA should be considering the permits.
The EPA's rule appears to be worded in a way that excludes the permits.
Under pressure from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, the Clinton administration set out in 2000 to write a rule allowing the Corps of Engineers to issue the necessary Clean Water Act permits.
A federal rule-making was initiated by the Corps of Engineers and the EPA, providing the Army with the wording it needed to have permitting authority under rules that would tolerate fill dumping.
Mining interests, not only in West Virginia but throughout the country, sent in comments endorsing the new rule.
But environmental organizations whipped up nearly 15,000 letters opposing it.
"I am appalled at the administration's willingness to appease coal mining interests by modifying Clean Water Act rules to allow the continuation of environmentally destructive mining practices that fill valleys and streams with strip mining wastes," wrote Seward Weber of Plainfield, Vt.
"I do not understand why this is even an issue," wrote Bryan Warf of Doylestown, Pa. "Do you understand the effects that dumping would have on these waterways? Children swim in these rivers, creeks and streams and you all feel the need to dump trash in them? People entrust power to politicians because we expect you to do what is best for us, not corporate lobbyists."
Ashley Goff, a high school senior in Harmon, W.Va., addressed her letter to "Dear Mr. Clinton."
"I am asking you on behalf of everyone who lives in Harmon, Dryfork, Whitmer, Job and so on, PLEASE STOP mountaintop removal. We need a place to live in our mountains, and I intend to say right here and be happy for the rest of my life. Is it too much to ask for us to have our beautiful mountain tops?"
Hundreds of letters were identically worded, clearly the work of organized campaigns. One form letter ended with the plea: "Please abandon these proposed rule changes as they now stand."
Unfortunately for the environmentalists, that's exactly what the Clinton administration chose to do.
Record remained open
That meant when the Bush administration took office, the rule had been neither passed nor rejected. It had been proposed, the agencies had received public comment, and the record remained open. The only thing left to do was write and finalize a rule.
In a declaration filed in connection with still another environmental lawsuit in Charleston, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Griffin, director of civil works for the Corps of Engineers, stated in February that the EPA and the corps "expect to complete the process" begun during the Clinton administration "and publish a final rule in April, 2002."
"Mountaintop removal is making southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky into the nation's energy sacrifice zone," said the environmental coalition's Stockman. "Coal companies are sacrificing some of the most biologically diverse forests on Earth, destroying mountain heritage and mountain communities and burying our precious streams for the sake of short-term profit.
"Most of what they are doing isn't even legal," she added. "That is, until Bush rolls back the laws written to protect us."