Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mason Students Support Historic Environmental Legislation

By Allison Rutledge
March 1, 2010

An edited version of this article was published in Broadside, George Mason University's student newspaper on 3/01/10

Over the past month, members of Mason's Environmental Action Group (EAG) have been working hard to help pass legislation to protect streams and mountains in the commonwealth. In particular, one bill, the “Stream Saver" bill would stop coal companies from dumping surface mining waste in 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 predominate type of surface mining in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal is the practice of leveling the tops of mountains through massive explosions and dumping the resulting debris in the 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 Virginian mountains. A 2001 assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that the waste from mountaintop removal mining has 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.

Mason students Emily Miles and Jason Von Kundra traveled to Richmond on January 18th to voice their opinions to their legislators regarding various environmental bills, including 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. They met Senator Chap Petersen, who represents the district where Mason’s Fairfax campus stands. 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. Other members of the EAG and I plan on giving the film to Petersen in the near future.” The two students also met Senator Ticer, the patron of the bill, and Senator Whipple, a co-patron.

Von Kundra went to Richmond again on Thursday, February 11th, for a hearing on the Stream Saver bill. Senator Petersen described the hearing as “one of the largest public hearings in the history of the State Capitol.” The hearing room, an overflow room, and the halls surrounding each were packed with people. 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.

To protect their interests, one coal company bussed over a hundred coal workers to speak against the bill at the hearing. Most of the bill’s opponents came in defense of jobs in the coal industry, although this bill only applies to surface mining which, because of its highly mechanized nature, employs far less workers than traditional underground mining. In Virginia, surface mining represents approximately 30% of the total coal industry. 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 see this bill as a solution to those problems. Residents from Southwest Virginia, where mountaintop removal is currently taking place, came to protect their communities including the streams and mountains. 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 Southwest Virginia resident described the nearly constant blasting from the explosives used to break up the top of the mountains before dumping the debris in the streams. This blasting 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 Senator Petersen, in order to show him that Mason students support the bill. This past Friday they wandered the JC with cameras and signs that read “Save Our Mountains and Streams, Support SB 564” and “Not One More Mile!” taking pictures of anyone that wanted to send a message to their elected official. Before snapping a picture of a Mason student holding one of the signs, Gopi Raghu, an electrical engineering major, explained that “Not One More Mile!” means the polluting of Virginian streams must stop now.

On Monday, February 15th, the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee choose to "leave the bill in committee" and postpone the voting of the bill to next year. This is the first time such legislation has been considered in the Virginia General Assembly. The fact that legislation to stop mountaintop removal was considered this year makes this is a historic time for preservation of our natural resources. Opponents of mountaintop removal are pleased with the momentum gained from this bill: support from numerous senators, a productive public hearing, and more attention to the issue. Mason students are proud to be part of the effort.