The mountaintop mining operation that flattened Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia. Coal companies have removed several hundred feet of area mountaintops, taken out narrow seams of coal and put leftover rubble in huge valley fills, covering up headwater streams. The wooded area at bottom right is Larry Gibson's property.
The mountaintop mining operation that flattened Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia. Coal companies have removed several hundred feet of area mountaintops, taken out narrow seams of coal and put leftover rubble in huge valley fills, covering up headwater streams. The wooded area at bottom right is Larry Gibson's property. Vivian Stockman
Larry Gibson gets a view of the Bush administration's environmental legacy from the top of Kayford Mountain.
Larry Gibson gets a view of the Bush administration's environmental legacy from the top of his mountain in southern West Virginia. He's surrounded by mountaintop-removal mining operations. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR
Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association says having a friend in the White House — President Bush — has been great for coal.
Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association says having a friend in the White House — President Bush — has been great for coal. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR
Christine Todd Whitman was Bush's first EPA chief. She left in part because she couldn't sign on to a White House policy that weakened protections for clean air.
Christine Todd Whitman was Bush's first EPA chief. She left in part because she couldn't sign on to a White House policy that weakened protections for clean air. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR
There might not be a better place to contemplate the impact of President Bush's environmental legacy than Larry Gibson's mountain in southern West Virginia.
Gibson grew up there, and so did many of his ancestors. It used to be that if you stood at the edge of his property, all you'd see was Kayford Mountain.
"You could not see past this mountain because this was the highest," Gibson says.
It was 3,200 feet high at some points. But now Gibson is standing at 2,400 feet looking down.
"And this here is what hell looks like to me on Earth," Gibson says on a rainy winter day.
What used to be a peak is now a massive mining site. A coal company scrapped off the top of the mountain to get to coal seams. Across Appalachia, similar operations are flattening mountains and covering up streams. The Bush administration has promoted what is called mountaintop removal mining, and it even changed environmental rules when lawsuits threatened to halt the practice.
Pushing Coal, But At What Cost?
Throughout his term, Bush worked to preserve coal's position as the biggest source of electricity and to increase domestic production of oil and natural gas. These priorities have translated into a lasting environmental legacy that includes buried streams in the coalfields of Appalachia, polluted waterways in the Rocky Mountain West and coal-fired power plants that haven't had to clean up.
Last summer, President Bush told the West Virginia Coal Association why he was such a good friend to coal. He said reliable energy is crucial to the nation's economy, and coal is the most reliable source.
"Coal is affordable and coal is available right here in the United States of America," he said to applause.
But not everyone in West Virginia is applauding.
"Truly, I think that the Bush administration is responsible for the destruction of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world," says Joe Lovett, a West Virginia lawyer who has argued several lawsuits to try to end mountaintop mining. "If you fly over the mountain range, what you see is a wasteland where once there were the most productive and diverse forests in the world, mountain streams — those are gone."
Bill Raney, executive director of the West Virginia Coal Association, says activists overstate the negative impact of mountaintop mining.
"I don't agree with that. They want everyone to believe that every mountaintop is going to be mined, and that simply is not true," Raney says.
He says environmentalists also ignore that mountaintop mining businesses are responsible for a large portion of the state's revenues and jobs.
Rule Changes And Monetary Considerations
One of the rule changes that bolstered mountaintop mining was signed by Christine Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Bush.
"Mountaintop mining is, frankly, to my mind, ugly," she says. She has flown over the hollows of Appalachia and has seen the impact. "On the other hand, it is the sole way of making a living for many, many people down there."
Whitman says a lot of people don't like coal, but other energy options also have downsides, and half of the nation's electricity comes from coal.
She says that's why many of the Bush administration environmental decisions were made to help the mining companies and utilities that make electricity from coal. For instance, President Bush reversed a campaign pledge and decided not to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Bush's EPA also changed government regulations to make it easier for older coal-fired power plants to avoid installing pollution-control devices.
"That was too bad — that was a loss for all of us, frankly," Whitman says.
She says she decided to leave her EPA post in part because she could not sign a measure that would make it easier for dirty coal-fired power plants to pollute, especially because when she was New Jersey's governor she backed a lawsuit designed to force them to clean up.
Legacy Not All Negative
Still, Whitman says President Bush's environmental legacy is misunderstood.
"What you hear is a lot of the negatives, and there were a lot of negatives. But there are also good things that were done, and people tend to forget that — and we shouldn't," Whitman says.
She points to decisions to slash cancer-causing pollution from diesel trucks and buses, and to preserve huge stretches of the Pacific Ocean as marine national monuments. First Bush designated the northwestern Hawaiian islands as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and earlier this month he named three more.
But environmentalists say that's not what people will remember. Marty Hayden of the environmental law group Earthjustice says the president's legacy will be opening treasured landscapes for timber harvests and oil and gas development.
"And we're talking about places like the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado, areas across the Red Rock region of Utah, and they've leased millions of acres of the polar bear seas right out from under the polar bear," Hayden says.
But Bush appointees say the president's actions can be explained by his desire to make America less dependent on foreign oil at a time when competition for limited resources was increasing.
"Contrary to what some believe, this is not the administration of just drill, drill, drill at all costs and do nothing else and ignore the environment," says Michael Olsen, a lawyer for Bracewell & Giuliani LLP. Olsen's most recent post in the Bush administration was deputy assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals.
Supporters and detractors of the Bush administration agree: Mountaintop mining and drilling for domestic oil are complicated issues that are not going away. They will challenge the next president as well.