Mason Group Clashes with Mining Companies: Students Work to Pass ‘Stream Saver’ Bill

by   Posted on March 1st, 2010 in Uncategorized

Allison Rutledge, Broadside Correspondent

Over the past month, members of George Mason University’s Environmental Action Group, or EAG, have been working hard to help pass legislation to protect streams and mountains in the commonwealth. One bill in particular, the “Stream Saver” bill, would stop coal companies from dumping surface mining waste into streams, effectively ending mountaintop removal in Virginia.

The EAG is familiar with the environmental destruction caused by the extraction of coal. Last October, five EAG members traveled to the coal fields of West Virginia for the annual Mountain Justice Fall Summit. The students witnessed the impacts of mountaintop removal, the predominant type of surface mining in Appalachia.

According to the EAG, mountaintop removal is the practice of leveling mountain tops with massive explosions and then dumping the resulting debris in adjacent valleys — a common location for streams. The waste pollutes the watersheds, decreases biodiversity and deprives Virginia residents of clean drinking water. This type of mining has already destroyed 67 Virginia mountains. A 2001 assessment by the U.S. EPA says that the waste from mountaintop removal mining had affected 151 miles of streams in Virginia. Many more miles of streams have been destroyed since 2001 and, according to the EAG, will continue to be destroyed if action is not taken. The Stream Saver bill would stop this practice.

Freshman undeclared major Emily Miles and junior physics major Jason Von-Kundra traveled to Richmond on Jan. 18 to voice their opinions to their legislators regarding various environmental bills. Chief among the proposed legislation was the Stream Saver bill, formally known as Senate Bill 564. The students met with four state senators and two legislative aides to ask for their support. Virginia Senator Chap Petersen (D-34th), who represents the district where Mason’s Fairfax campus stands, was among those spoken with.

According to Von-Kundra, “Senator Peterson seemed sincerely interested in everything we discussed. He admitted he was not familiar with mountaintop removal coal mining, which prevented him from taking a stance on the issue.

“A documentary film about mountaintop removal, Coal Country, explains the issue well and has made a big impact on me,” said Von-Kundra. “Other members of the EAG and I plan on giving the film to Petersen in the near future.” The two students also met Virginia Senator Patricia Ticer (D-30th), the patron of the bill, and Virginia Senator Margaret Whipple (D-31st), a co-patron.

Von-Kundra went to Richmond again on Thursday, Feb. 11, for a hearing on the Stream Saver bill. Senator Petersen described the event as “one of the largest public hearings in the history of the State Capitol.”

The hearing room, an overflow room and the surrounding halls were packed with concerned citizens. During the nearly three-hour hearing, both supporters and opponents were given the chance to voice their opinions to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

One hundred coal workers came to speak against the bill. Most of the bill’s opponents spoke in defense of coal industry jobs, although proponents alleged that the bill only applied to surface mining which, because of its highly-mechanized nature, employs far fewer workers than traditional underground mining. In Virginia, surface mining represents approximately 30 percent of the coal industry according to the U.S. Energy Administration Information website.

Tommy Hudson of the Virginia Coal Association gave the jobs breakdown at the hearing: of the 4,797 coal mining jobs in the commonwealth, 1,433 are related to surface mining.
The supporters of the bill spoke of environmental, economic and social injustice caused by mountaintop removal; they claimed the legislation was a solution to those problems. Residents from southwestern Virginia, where mountaintop removal is currently taking place, came to support the legislation.

Kathy Selvage, a Wise County native and co-founder of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, brought water from her tap that had been polluted by mountaintop removal. She urged legislators to support the bill. Another southwestern Virginia resident described the nearly constant blasting from the explosives used to break up the top of the mountains, saying it occurs dangerously close to homes, keeping people up at night and endangering lives.

Both sides received 45 minutes to present their case. Following the hearing, members of the EAG collected photo petitions to send to Sen. Petersen to show him that Mason students support the bill.
On Feb. 12 Mason’s bill supporters entered the Johnson Center with cameras and signs that read “Save Our Mountains and Streams, Support SB 564” and “Not One More Mile!” They took pictures of anyone who wanted to send a message to their elected officials. Before snapping a picture of a Mason student holding one of the signs, junior Gopi Raghu, an electrical engineering major, explained that “Not One More Mile!” means the polluting of Virginia streams must stop now.

On Feb. 15, the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee chose to “leave the bill in committee” and postpone the voting until next year. This is the first time such legislation has been considered in the Virginia General Assembly.

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