Mining at any cost

The Baltimore Sun

"Had I known that this evil mountain, this alive mountain, would do what it did, I would never have sent the miners in here."

-- Robert Murray

There is something elemental, in the Judgment Day sense, about that hollowed-out mountain in Utah shrugging and shifting as if closing its wounds. Coal mine owner Robert Murray called the mountain "alive" and "evil": Indeed, its groaning gestures claimed the lives of nine men.

But the mountain at Crandall Canyon was as much a victim as the miners of the relentless quest to extract every possible resource from the earth. Minimal human-safety standards at least exceed the total disregard paid to environmental damage that results.

High prices for coal, uranium and other minerals have combined with the Bush administration's low regard for regulatory restraint to create what one environmental group calls a modern day land rush.

Abandoned coal mines like the one at Crandall Canyon are being reopened to scrape out the last precious bits. New mining claims staked on public lands have increased by 168,953 -- or 80 percent -- since 2003, most seeking uranium. Nearly all fall within close proximity to ecologically fragile national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, and their owners are taking advantage of an old law that exempts them from paying royalties.

If that weren't enough to make a mountain moan, the federal government is seeking to permanently protect the odious practice of mountain-top mining, a scourge of Appalachia that destroys the skyline and blasts polluting rubble into valley streams below.

As with the gold rush of 150 years ago, a very few are likely to benefit -- the entrepreneurs and the money men. Almost every other creation of nature can be expected to suffer unless Congress calls a halt to this fire sale of the nation's natural assets.

Miners know well the dangers they face; history is replete with ballads saluting their fortitude in the face of dirty, miserable duty. But the miners in Utah were at a particular disadvantage because they were trapped 1,800 feet underground without the two-way communication devices that federal law will mandate -- in 2009. What's more, they were pulling supports out of the mine shaft to get at the remaining coal -- a perilous practice that should never have been permitted.

That the coal so rudely ripped from the earth to be burned for heat and energy contributes mightily to global warming may be another form of nature's revenge.

Coal's limitations, in turn, are helping to drive renewed speculation in uranium for nuclear power. Thanks in part to an 1872 law that requires prospectors on public lands to share little or nothing with the government, thousands of claims have been staked in recent years for uranium and other hard rock metals along the borders of national parks throughout the West. Theoretically, the parks are protected from mining, but pollution of land, water and air knows no borders. The west is already pock-marked from decades of irresponsible mining practices. Much tighter environmental controls should be applied before further mining is allowed.

As president, Bill Clinton tried to protect streams from mountain-top mining, but the current occupant of the White House is much more sympathetic to the miners. New rules issued this week affirm this most destructive form of strip mining because it's the cheapest and safest way to get the coal.

Safety is critical, but air and water polluted by toxic rubble pose their own threat to mining communities. The breathtakingly shortsighted attitude now in vogue seems to advocate speedy plunder of anything of value without regard to consequences that will be someone else's problem.

But nature will have its Judgment Day. Maybe sooner than anybody imagines.

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