JPMorgan Chase Profits from Destruction in Appalachia

Remember the bank bailouts? The billions of tax dollars that went to those behemoth institutions? Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said recently that his investment bank may have had its "finest year ever." What he didn't highlight was that JPMorgan Chase's success is based, in part, on being the largest underwriter of coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal coal mining.

JPMorgan Chase has been funding six of the top eight coal mining companies responsible for mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States. Recently, its investment bank underwrote more than $1 billion in new financing to Massey Energy, the largest mountaintop removal coal mining company.

JPMorgan Chase states that its "environmental goal is to make a positive contribution to sustainable business practices by integrating environmental practices into our business model." Yet, Massey Energy has a deplorable environmental record, having violated the Clean Water Act no fewer than 4,500 times - resulting in a $30 million fine in 2008.

Employed throughout Appalachia -- especially in West Virginia and Kentucky, but also in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia -- mountaintop removal mining is an especially destructive method of extracting coal that has had far-reaching environmental and societal effects. Targeted areas of trees are cleared -- a process that itself has led to the leveling of over one million acres of hardwood forest between 1992 and 2002 -- and then mountaintops are blasted apart in order to expose underlying coal seams for extraction.

In the past two decades alone, mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed roughly 470 mountains in the region. The debris from these blasts is dumped into surrounding valleys, destroying what were once serene and lush hollows. Or it's dumped into local rivers and streams, literally burying 1,200 miles of waterways.

Twelve hundred miles of waterways! Buried!

The toxins and heavy metals from this debris flow freely into the drinking water of those who live there.

Communities are decimated, as poverty has driven families out, leaving ghost towns where there used to be thriving homes, schools and businesses. Many who refuse to leave, because their families have been there for generations -- or who are stuck in the vicious cycle of accepting very little, because they've been left with nothing - lead lives that are filled with high rates of cancer, asthma and other life-threatening illnesses. And they are witness to friends and loved ones who succumb to premature death.

It's a living nightmare. And I've seen it firsthand.

I've seen a lunar landscape, where there used to be glorious and majestic mountains.

I've seen a two-billion-gallon, unlined, coal slurry pond, filled to the brim. Who knows how much arsenic, selenium, lead, and mercury, have seeped into the groundwater from that one "pond" alone?

I've spoken with people in a community who are hanging on by a thread, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They feel as though they are the forgotten ones. They can't understand how this can be happening in this country. Their eyes reflect countless years of hardship and loss of hope.

Fortunately, opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining is gaining momentum. Aware of the ethical issues involved in aiding such irresponsible business practices, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have ended their client relationships with Massey Energy. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency halted 79 permits for further environmental review. In October, USA Today, citing the destruction of areas "roughly the size of Delaware," called for the Obama Administration to "block the worst of them and change regulations to make the permitting process much stricter."

Other prominent newspapers have recently called for the practice to end, including newspapers in the Appalachian region:

  • In June, the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote: "Mountaintop removal is a violent attack on the Appalachian landscape... The Appalachian mountain chains are one of our region's, and indeed our country's, greatest resources. Mr. Obama should make clear that he won't stand for their continued destruction."
  • In August, the Chattanooga Times Free Press wrote: "Among the most destructive environmental abuses in this nation, the most deliberate, unconscionable and widespread has to be the form of coal-mining known as 'mountain-top removal' mining. Indeed, 'mining' is hardly the word for this premeditated, callously calculated, man-made catastrophe. ... It should be banned as soon as possible."
  • In October, even The Economist weighed in from London, saying the following about the use of mountaintop removal mining to extract carbon-emitting coal: "... the underlying question is why America allows this practice at all. . . . When a coal company blows the top off a mountain in West Virginia, it's destroying the environment in order to destroy the environment."

    It's time for JPMorgan Chase to get the message. It's time for them to stop funding this monstrous behavior.

    Gloria Reuben is a nationally known environmental activist and a special
    advisor to The Alliance for Climate Protection.