Glimpsing the End of Mountaintop Removal Mining

If there was ever a place in need of “renewing the commons”, it’s Appalachia.  Huge, ancient, megadiverse mountain ecosystems; 12,000 years of human history that’s included some very complicated and intense cultural and economic interactions in the past 500 years; and in recent decades, the massive, traumatic impact of mountaintop removal mining.

But there’s some good news: a combination of legal, economic, and ecological factors are combining to begin to shift the momentum away from unrestricted MRM’ing:

Selenium is a micronutrient that bioaccumulates up the food chain and has been linked to a variety of problems, including deformed fish. Selenium contamination downstream from Hobet and other Patriot mines is chronically high. Patriot had thus violated the terms of the Clean Water Act it promised in its permits to observe. Environmental groups took to the courts to get those terms enforced. Cleaning up selenium contamination is complex and expensive; when Patriot agreed to a major cleanup last January, it took on a crushing obligation estimated at $400 million.

And that was the whole idea, the environmentalists say. Until now, companies have not paid a significant price for the collateral environmental damage they cause. “When you look at a company like Patriot which has scores of outfalls across dozens of permits, you’re taking some serious money to come into compliance,” says Derek Teaney, an attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that brought the litigation. “It just revealed, in stark terms, exactly what expenses there are when a company is forced to internalize these costs rather than just having the environment bear them.”

It’s worth reiterating that this is, and has been, one of the core goals of the environmental movement.   When companies that pollute and degrade land can freely pass the costs of that pollution and degradation onto the public, unborn children, and earth, there’s very little incentive for them to operate ecologically.  Remember: in most corporate governance structures, executives can be fired if they don’t maximize available financial returns for shareholders.  This isn’t to excuse the inexcusable, but to illuminate the incentives at work.  Forcing those externalized costs to be paid by the polluters and degraders changes the incentives.  When it works, it’s a big deal.

I think the old “rear guard/vanguard” framework is also useful here.  And it’s not really an either/or, but a partnership.  In an overall “build a new world that works” vanguard strategy, there’s also a really important place for high-leverage rear-guard actions to slow or stop devastating harm by the existing system.  This type of legal mechanism to de-externalize costs is one of them.  It should be supported and championed even by those of us working primarily to create new practices and institutions.

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