Mountaintop mining is the practice of using huge machines to remove layers of soil and rock to reach thin seams of coal. It has its advantages — it is an efficient way to reach the high-thermal value, low-impurity coal in the central Appalachian range, which accounts for one-fifth of the nation’s coal; and it is a resource for American energy independence.

It also has its disadvantages — mountaintops are deposited into valleys, trees and habitats are destroyed, chemical drainage may pollute streams, and many find it ugly.

After 30 years of this practice, it is difficult to determine who are the winners and who are the losers. Someone employed to drive those big machines is a winner, but what if that same person lives in a valley that is being filled? Business people in the community may feel equally ambivalent. Jobs stimulate the economy and generate tax dollars, but what will happen when the coal is gone?

Conflicting values in a person’s life may be the key to deliberative discussion about mountaintop mining, according to John Craynon, project director of the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science with the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech.

“Take advantage of the duality of stakeholders, such as a member of a mining-impacted community who is an employee of a mining operation,” Craynon said. “The perspective gained via one role might inform decisions made in another.”

In an article published in Elsevier’s Resources Policy Journal, three Virginia Tech researchers point out that with a history of public distrust and contradicting policies from government agencies, the recent federal and state government and mining industry efforts to increase the community’s voice in decision making hasn’t succeeded in incorporating stakeholders’ values and concerns.

A public ecology approach can give the stakeholders — including members of the coal mining industry, federal and state agencies and courts, labor unions, environmental and community advocacy groups, land holding companies, private citizens, and researchers — a new focus, according to co-authors Craynon; Emily Sarver, assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering; and David P. Robertson, associate director of the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region.

According to the article, “Public ecology can be defined as the nexus of science, engineering, public policy and interest, citizen views and values, market forces, and environmental protection statutes and regulations, which, through an open and participatory discourse, is intended to ensure that the ecological systems continue to function as societies operate within and derive benefits from them.”

The researchers admit there appear to be discrepancies between environment and economy, which are valued differently based on proximity.

“In the most basic sense, this problem arises from the fact that, while many impacts, including environmental and social impacts, of mining are largely local, decision-making tends to be driven by state, federal, or even global interests and values,” the researchers write. “For example, energy production goals and coal-mining regulation are generally carried out under national policies.”

“At the state-scale, primacy to enforce certain regulations, tax revenues, and varying political climates can drive decisions surrounding mountaintop mining,” they continue. “At the finest scale, local citizens, business owners and elected officials … may experience both the negative and positive impacts of that operation … even neighbors may substantially disagree and have differing interests.”

The authors contend that “public ecology, which emphasizes meaningful inclusion of all interested stakeholders, might ensure a better balance of power and access in the process and lead to more equitable, defensible, and lasting outcomes.”

It is not only the concept of public ecology, but more how the public is defined by the three researchers that may make it possible for a discussion to occur.

“The public includes the CEO and the machine operator, both of whom grew up locally and fished the streams and now support their families by working for the mining company,” Craynon explained. “People with complex motivations have the best chance of succeeding in understanding and accommodating stakeholders’ significant differences in values and interests.”

The researchers’ recommendations for action depend upon broad participation and transparency. But they are optimistic that attempts by some groups — including the U.S. coal industry — to increase public participation may signify that ideology is shifting in the general direction of public ecology.

“The recent decision by Patriot Coal to stop mountaintop mining may exemplify a shift in industry response,” Robertson said.

Questions that remain, according to the article, include the following

  • Can public ecology be effective within the complex system of laws and across the multiple scales of government currently involved?
  • Can public ecology be effective given the dynamic and overwhelming economic and national security issues associated with energy production?
  • How can different levels of government maintain appropriate roles within a public ecology approach?
  • And perhaps the biggest question of all — are all of the interested stakeholders able and willing to participate in deliberative processes, many of which require not just collaboration but compromise in order to find a common and higher ground?

The researchers are also actively incorporating these policy considerations in their other ongoing work. Sarver and her colleagues in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering are working to incorporate the philosophy of public ecology into many of the courses taught to the next generation of mining professionals. The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science research program that Craynon heads includes projects focused on the “how-tos” of incorporating science and public input into decisions related to energy development and community well-being. Robertson also focuses on the concept as a core part of his research and teaching.

“To put such new ideas into practice, there is need for more than just research,” said Sarver. “We have to teach the next generation of engineers, scientists, and policy makers, and reach out to the stakeholders in this debate.”

“The U.S. may need to fundamentally restructure regulatory programs in order to bring all the interested parties to the table with a meaningful role to play,” the article states.

Craynon, Sarver, and Robertson point to the Chesapeake Bay clean up as a model program where public ecology and broad participation has overcome significant controversy and overlapping regulatory programs.

“The resolution of complex issues such as mountaintop mining may require radical boldness to break through years of distrust and allow for the adoption of a more public ecology,” the article concludes. “Through the cooperation of all parties, mountaintop coal mining may be modified so that better social, environmental and economic goals can be achieved and the interests of all affected parties can be adequately considered.”

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