There were no mountains in sight outside the windows of the mezzanine of Gladfelter Hall as a group of activists sat in a circle, the late afternoon sun pouring into the room. Even so, the foreign landscape was the purpose of discussion.
The conversation moved swiftly as the six activists briefly touched upon state appropriations to higher education, before focusing their attention on the university’s relationship with PNC Bank. That relationship—and its far off tie to a specific form of coal mining—is the focal point of a campaign the group has been advancing for months.
The discussion, among members of Temple Community Against Mountaintop Removal, was indicative of the group’s efforts to use the university’s prominence as leverage to achieve what they describe as social and environmental justice–or at least attempt to do so.
Mountaintop removal coal mining, also known as mountaintop mining, is a form of surface mining that includes blasting the tops of mountains with explosives in order to access coal seams underneath. The excess waste, topsoil and rock is often placed in adjacent valley fills.
Since the process—practiced in the Appalachian region of states such as West Virginia and Kentucky—began, it has come under scrutiny by scientists and environmentalists.
Dr. Laura Toran, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, said mountaintop removal coal mining has been known to be detrimental to the environment for years.
“Sometimes we make mistakes [that cause environmental damage], and we can sort of fix them afterwards. It’s pretty hard to fix the damages by mountaintop removal,” Toran said. “Because they remove the materials from the mountains and dump them into the valley, there’s two different environments that are being impacted there.”
“You’ve removed a lot of trees and disturbed an ecosystem on the mountain, but then you’ve dumped all this [material] in the valley,” Toran added, such as introducing chemicals into the streams.
Estimates reported by the Environmental Protection Agency suggest approximately 2,000 miles of headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop removal coal mining.
In January 2010, an article titled “Mountaintop Mining Consequences” appeared in Science Magazine, outlining adverse environmental impacts, such as declines in stream biodiversity, flooding, sulfate pollution and human exposure to airborne toxins and dust.
Although the mining process is regulated by the Clean Water Act, Toran and fellow experts contend that the “outdated” policy falls short of real oversight.
“We don’t have a lot of political will to update [laws and regulations],” Toran said. “It has to be enforced and all states are cash-strapped.”
The Science article, authored by more than a dozen scientists, recommended new permits for mountaintop removal coal mining not be issued unless new methods “can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy” the environmental problems.
But Dr. Brad Woods, an ethics educator in the Office for Research Protections at Penn State, said the impact is not limited to the environment.
While receiving his Ph.D., Woods researched the human and social impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining for his dissertation.
“My findings were that there are pretty severe consequences on well-being and quality of life living around mountaintop removal from disruption of daily activity, sleep because of constant blasting [to] having [house] foundations cracked,” Woods said.
One of the Science article’s authors, Dr. Michael Hendryx, also co-authored studies linking mountaintop removal coal mining to higher rates of health problems, cancer and birth defects, among residents living near mountaintop removal coal mining operations in Appalachia.
An environmentalist group is currently attempting to use the West Virginia University studies in a legal case to block a permit for a mining operation in West Virginia.
Woods, a Central Appalachia native with family and friends in the mining business, said the impoverished areas of Appalachia typically rely on coal mining jobs, although mountaintop removal coal mining operations require significantly less workers than underground mining.
Residents in coal communities that express opposition are often seen as anti-economic growth and are therefore marginalized, Woods said.
Jeff Chapman-Crane, a longtime resident of Eolia, Ky., said his community neighbors a surface mining operation.
Chapman-Crane said the operation isn’t technically considered mountaintop removal coal mining, but he still feels the same effects––a cracked foundation to his house, loud blasting and air-filled dust. His wife, Sharman, has developed asthma, which they believe is a result of the dust.
An artist and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide direct-action organization, Chapman-Crane depicted his discontent with mountaintop removal coal mining in a sculpture, “Agony of Gaia.” The sculpture features a woman, Mother Nature, as a mountain being subjected to mountaintop removal coal mining.
Arguing against mountaintop removal coal mining, Toran said, must be done with regards to a bigger issue: energy consumption.
“Anybody saying ‘Oh, we should stop doing this,’ also has to consider the energy issue,” Toran said, noting that much of the United States’ energy comes from coal.
As the 2012 presidential election gains momentum, candidates often profess a need to decrease foreign reliance for energy by utilizing American energy sources. Paired with environmental concerns, the topic of energy extraction in the U.S. is often a contentious one.
“Maybe if we put the cost of the environmental damage onto the energy [cost], maybe we would use less energy,” Toran said.
Cutting energy consumption, Toran said, would have to be done in order to end some coal practices.
Still, activists with the group argue that traditional underground mining is favorable when compared to mountaintop removal coal mining.
Toran said mountaintop removal coal mining appears safer for miners, who face severe risks when mining underground.
Woods contested that idea.
“The technology to keep underground miners safer is there, with improved communication in terms of if there is an accident underground,” Woods said. “However, you have resistance both at the state and federal level…of people being unwilling to force companies to adopt this new safety equipment.”
TCAMR sprung up in the fall, when members and Occupy Philadelphia protesters attended the Board of Trustees public meeting on Oct. 11, demanding Temple cut off ties with PNC Bank, a financier of companies engaging in mountaintop removal coal mining.
The Rainforest Action Network and Sierra Club, in its 2011 “Policy and Practice” report, ranked PNC Bank as the top financier of companies engaging in mountaintop removal coal mining, followed by Citi and UBS, respectively.
In November 2011, as chants in support of mountains reverberated on Liacouras Walk, three students sat-in at the on-campus branch of PNC, demanding a meeting with university administrators. Refusing to leave without an arranged meeting, the students were arrested shortly after.
In 2010, PNC modified its policy in regards to mountaintop removal coal mining financing. According to its 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report, the company’s mountaintop removal coal mining-specific policy states that it “does not extend credit to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining.”
Critics of the policy claim that big coal companies rarely receive a majority of its production through mountaintop removal coal mining.
PNC could not be reached for comment at press time.
In response to the group’s demands for Temple to sever its relationship with PNC Bank, the university’s Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee released a statement.
Temple’s “arm-length business relationship” with PNC includes payment for the bank’s services, such as tuition refund services and management of investments for fixed income securities in the university’s operating funds, the statement reads. The university does not have any direct investments in the bank.
However, activists have questioned whether J. William Mills III, a board member and regional president of PNC in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, creates a conflict of interest by sitting on the board’s Investment Committee.
Mills III met with the Earth Quaker Action Team, an organization with a main campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining and PNC’s financing of practicing companies, in 2010, according to the organization’s website.
Mills III declined comment for this story.
Many members of the TCAMR are also active in the now-evicted Occupy Philadelphia.
“There has been a lot of overlap, but that’s very indicative of the general times and consciousness,” Ethan Jury, a member of the group and a Latin American Studies major, said.
Brianne Murphy, one of the group’s leaders and a senior religion and anthropology major, said whether or not the group’s association with Occupy Philadelphia taints the group’s image is a matter of opinion. Murphy was arrested during Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction, just hours before the on-campus arrests at PNC Bank took place.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Community Against Mountaintop Removal has also become active, working toward the same goals. Both Temple’s and Penn’s group have been motivated by the Earth Quaker Action Team’s efforts.
Going forward, members of the group said at its most recent meeting, the organization will focus on activating students, engaging faculty and promoting research of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Jury said he plans to show “The Last Mountain,” a documentary highlighting the environmental concerns of mountaintop removal coal mining, to students throughout the semester.
Since the student campaigns have started, the unorthodox efforts by the group to affect mountaintop removal coal mining operations have been questioned.
Professor Ralph Young, Ph. D., and author of “Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation,” said the group could be taking cues from other protests in history that targeted institutions to wield their power in addressing concerns.
“For example, during apartheid in South Africa students at Harvard and other Ivy League institutions staged protests against the university’s trustees demanding that they divest themselves of stock in companies that did business with South Africa in order to force the government there to abandon apartheid,” Young said in an email. “And this did have an impact.”
“I guess the Temple students who are protesting in this way might be using that as a model,” Young added.
The group’s challenge of Temple to step forward against mountaintop removal coal mining is one that could be accompanied by political implications.
Toran said the campaign is interesting because it challenges people “higher up, and people who deal with money” to pay attention to the environmental issue.
“Most of the time, if we can slow these things down, which…tripping up the finances does, we can find a more careful way to do things,” Toran said. “Trying to change the environmental regulations is going to be hard.”
Unlike Toran’s notion, William Bergman, vice president and chief of staff, said students efforts might be more effective through focusing on new legislation.
When asked if the group’s claims against mountaintop removal coal mining were valid, Bergman said he does not look into each specific campaign student protesters raise, but rather “ensure[s] they have an appropriate way to say what they want to say and get their message across.”
While the university has taken a hands-off approach to the issue, arranging a Jan. 23 meeting for PNC officials and TCAMR, group members maintain that the issue should be discussed on campus.
“I think a lot of action that needs to take place needs to take place outside of the coal fields,” Chapman-Crane said.
More than 500 miles away from Main Campus, Chapman-Crane said college students’ activism in support of mountains is appreciated–no matter the distance or terrain.
Angelo Fichera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story printed that a protest leading to the arrest of students occurred in December 2011. The incident occurred Nov. 30.]