Clinton’s coal dust-up

Hillary Clinton may not radiate the same green glow as Barack Obama, but she’s usually pretty solid on environmental policy. Her congressional record is impressive – the League of Conservation Voters gives her a 90 percent lifetime rating – and her presidential campaign has set out an ambitious and detailed plan for tackling climate change.

This week, though, she took her eye off the ball: In an interview with West Virginia public radio, she fudged a question on mountaintop-removal mining.  “I’m not an expert,” she said. “But … maybe there’s a way to recover those mountains once they’ve been stripped of coal. You know, I think we’ve got to look at this from a practical perspective.” She went on to say that she would seek advice from “people who could be objective” about the best way to balance “both the economic necessities and environmental damage.”

So far, neither Clinton nor Obama have set out satisfactory plans for dealing with the coal industry: Both merely say that they’ll invest heavily in “clean coal”, despite the fact that both the Department of Energy and energy consultancies say that we’re at least two decades from viable zero-emissions coal technology. Still, Clinton really should know better than to embrace mountaintop-removal mining, an especially filthy process also known as “strip mining on steroids”.

Mountaintop removal involves literally hacking the top off mountains in order to reach the coal that lies beneath: Each year, mining companies use the equivalent of 58 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs to blast their way through the bedrock. Across Appalachia, a million acres of land and more than 470 entire mountains have already been destroyed; the resultant rubble has clogged more than 1,200 miles of mountain streams, and produced vast slurry pits laced with poisons including lead, arsenic and mercury.

Meanwhile, the “economic necessities” Clinton speaks of don’t come close to offsetting the environmental damage. The areas affected by mountaintop-removal mining are some of the poorest in the country, with poverty rates well over 27 percent. And the heavily automated mining techniques used for mountaintop removal aren’t helping matters: Even as coal production has increased, mining employment has slumped by about 90 percent.

In fact, of course, Clinton almost certainly does know better: She’s attended Senate hearings on mountaintop-removal mining since 2002, and can hardly claim ignorance of the harm being done by Appalachia’s coal mines. That makes it especially worrying that she’s unwilling to speak out: If she knows the facts and is still unwilling to condemn mountaintop-removal mining, how can we trust her to show better judgment in other areas?