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A 40-Year-Old Federal Law Literally Changed the Appalachian Landscape

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Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that literally changed the face of Appalachia.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) was intended to replace a state-to-state patchwork of rules for strip-mining with a uniform federal standard. Four decades later, however, environmentalists say the law has fallen far short of its potential.

“Massive destruction, massive explosives — and only 300 feet away from someone’s home,” said Thom Kay, legislative associate at Appalachian Voices. “What is SMCRA doing if that’s still allowed?”

Louise Dunlap, who co-founded the Environmental Policy Center in the early ’70s and was such an integral part of lobbying for SMCRA that Carter mentioned her in his speech at the signing ceremony.

“On the 40th anniversary, we’re not celebrating because of the lack of enforcement and budget cuts,” Dunlap said, “but it is an anniversary that deserves recognition and a renewed commitment that the law be updated and enforced.”

Kay was quick to say that the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining and other forms of strip mining might be worse without SMCRA, but added that the lack of enforcement by states has severely undercut the law’s effectiveness. A federal investigation released in February, for example, found that West Virginia was lax in enforcement; a week later, Governor Jim Justice criticized state environmental regulators, not for failure to enforce federal laws but for dressing too casually.

The mining industry sees it differently. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), the federal agency tasked with overseeing SMCRA, “has achieved a great deal in the past four decades – for the environment and reclamation of abandoned sites as well as for coal mining, employment and the economic well-being of coalfields,” wrote Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, in an email.

“But the distinguishing characteristic of this law has been the foresight Congress had in giving states primary authority over coal oversight and permitting. SMCRA is by design not a top-down, one-size-fits-all program. That’s in recognition of the plain fact that coal mining varies greatly with the great variety of the coal resource throughout the country–from the arid West to the Appalachian mountains,” he added.

State enforcement—or lack thereof—coupled with the rise of large-scale mountaintop removal mining in the 1990s has changed the Appalachian landscape, and not just in a figurative sense, either. A 2016 study by researchers at Duke University found that mountaintop removal mining techniques had significantly changed the contours of southeastern West Virginia. Before mining, the area’s most common feature was steep slopes with a pitch of 28 degrees. Now, those slopes have been replaced by a new most common feature—a more or less flat plain with a 2-degree slope.

Although economic developers have long decried the general absence of flat land in Appalachia that can attract industry, only a small percentage of reclaimed mining sites were put to use for business, Kay said. A 2010 study by Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 366 of 410 reclaimed mountaintop removal sites, or 89.3 percent, had no post-mining development other than forestry or pasture.

Even on the day he signed SMCRA into law, Carter expressed concern but also hope that the bill could be improved.

“I’m not completely satisfied with the legislation,” Carter said on August 2, 1977. “I would prefer to have a stricter strip mining bill. I’m concerned with some of the features that had to be watered down during this session to get it passed, but I think that this provides us a basis on which we can make improvements on the bill in years to come.”

Dunlap remembered that day as one of hope. A coalition of advocacy groups and coalfield communities had lobbied for nearly a decade to pass a federal law regulating strip mining. Twice, Congress had passed versions of SMCRA that were vetoed by Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford.

As lawmakers developed a new version of the bill, Dunlap’s group worked closely with Pennsylvania, which had passed a restrictive strip-mining law but was receiving pushback from the coal industry. Dunlap said that advocacy groups also kept close communication with coalfield communities around the U.S., using airmail to send proposed amendments to activists, then receiving feedback over the phone.

“We had a network of citizens around the country, who in some cases had been dealing with their state legislators,” Dunlap said. “We’d send the amendments out each day during mark-up. People would get them and call us, and tell us go with this, don’t go with that. Many of the provisions in the law were literally written by citizens.”

The improvements that Carter hoped for never really materialized. Take the stream buffer rule, first added in 1983 by the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Surface mine reclamation in progress at Kayford Mountain near the Raleigh and Kanawha County border in West Virginia. (Photo: Roger May)

“We feel like that was never properly enforced, and not just lax enforcement but bad interpretation,” Kay said. “We saw it as saying you cannot mine through streams, cannot dump your waste into streams. They saw it as you pretty much can; you just have to ask. They’d ask for a waiver and the states would give it to them. In cases we’ve looked at, there are very few examples where the state refused a company the ability to dump into a stream or mine through a stream.”

The rule was updated in 2008 under George W. Bush, but environmentalists saw the new version as even worse than the 1983 version, and it was ultimately overturned in court. The most recent iteration came late in Barack Obama’s second term, but wasn’t even implemented before Congress and President Donald Trump overturned it.

Jay Rockefeller — who lost the West Virginia’s 1972 gubernatorial race partly due to a campaign pledge to ban strip-mining, reversed his stance and, after winning election four years later — was one of several key elected officials who helped to stall SMCRA’s implementation and enforcement.

As SMCRA remained largely stagnant, coal mining technology moved forward by leaps and bounds. The use of mountaintop removal techniques jumped sharply in the ’90s, mining coal on a scale that SMCRA’s authors likely never imagined.

The result was places like the Hobet mine, a 12,000-acre mountaintop removal site in southern West Virginia that grew from a small, family-owned company to a corporate behemoth that saw two bankruptcies and now is the focus of a state-driven economic reclamation effort.

“Without SMCRA, a mine like Hobet might not exist,” Kay said. “The compromises that happened in passing that bill paved the way for mountaintop removal as we saw it in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. It didn’t legalize it in the sense that it was not legal before, but it did formalize what was allowed.”

The landscape-scale effects on the environment also changed communities. In places like Lindytown, residents whose families had dwelt there for generations sold their homes to coal companies rather than live so close to active strip-mining operations.

In a news release, Citizens Coal Council lamented that the promises of SMCRA have not been upheld, but only “honored in breach”—“that is, ignored, compromised, and twisted in their implementation and interpretation.”

“The 40th anniversary of the enactment of SMCRA is not a time of celebration of achievement, but rather, a somber reminder that after 40 years of implementation, and fully 60 or more years after grassroots efforts to see enacted a national program for controlling surface coal mining operations, the promises made by Congress to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept,” said Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, in the release.

In contrast, Popovich said the NMA welcomes a renewed focus on state — not federal — enforcement.

“In recent years we’ve lost sight of that distinguishing and very valuable characteristic of SMCRA and now appear to be recognizing it once again,” wrote Popovich. “The law empowered the states; let’s let state agencies do their part Congress as Congress intended.”

Trump’s early actions indicate that he is unlikely to make SMCRA a priority. His administration’s budget proposal would cut $111 million in funding from OSMRE. The proposal includes eliminating the $89.9 million Abandoned Mine Land Economic Development Pilot program, which stands at the center of a fight over the related Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act.

Congress so far has shown an unwillingness to incorporate Trump’s proposed cuts in their totality. With a budget battle looming in September and October — as well as pending legislation such as the RECLAIM Act — lawmakers will make decisions in coming months that will affect the shape of SMCRA, and its corresponding effect on the Appalachian landscape, into the future.

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Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020

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Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?

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Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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