Mountaintop Removal Mining: Risky Business

Student Writers: Nicole B, Geddy K, Elliot R, and Shehan S

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Photo Credit: Mother Nature Network


Are the benefits of mountaintop removal worth the many negative impacts of this harmful practice? This article weighs the risks and benefits of mountaintop removal mining (MTR), primarily focusing on the numerous risks of this method. It includes a brief history of the MTR process including the political history, as well as the evolution of the process since its introduction in the 1960’s. The article also contains claims of the supposed benefits of MTR, followed by evidence to refute these claims. Next, the article focuses on the environmental impacts, including biodiversity loss and irreversible habitat destruction for which there currently is no plan of action to repair. A major issue for nearby residents is property damage and loss, as well as threats to their health and well-being, such as increased likelihood of disease and birth defects. The overall underlying message the article conveys is that MTR has many more hazardous consequences than it has positive ones, and that this process is extremely damaging to humans and the environment.

History and Technical Processes


Mountaintop removal mining has been practiced since the 1960s. Demand for this type of mining increased during the petroleum crisis in 1973-1979, since it was deemed more economic than traditional mining. Demand increased again in the 1990s as Congress passed amendments to the US Clean Air Act, which created a demand for low-sulfur coal. Mountaintop removal mining offered easy access to this type of coal Wikipedia.

There have been attempts by the government to regulate this industry. The first one was enacted in 1977, when Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). This act required companies to acquire permits prior to beginning their work. It also required them to cover sufficient bond for the reclamation of the land, once they were finished with mining it. It also enacted several land restrictions, such as banning MTR in National Parks. Finally it gave more regulatory power to the federal government over MTR Wikipedia. During a 1998 court settlement, an Environmental Impact Statement was ordered to be formed. On October 1999 a West Virginia federal district court found MTR in violation of the Clean Water Act and the SMCRA. However this did not have a significant impact on the industry PIRG. These regulations have had their shortcomings too. The EIS that was ordered suffered a change in direction under the Bush administration. The administration ordered a J. Stephen Griles to head the effort. Griles had a significant tie to the mining industry, and the Senate required him to sign a “statement of disqualification” on August 1, 2001. Nonetheless due to the change in direction, the EIS failed to propose a valid alternative to MTR, what was supposed to be a major part of the statement. However the statement still revealed important statistics, for example 7% of Appalachian forests have been cleared and more than 1200 miles of streams have been buried or polluted. Union of Concerned Scientists.

Technical Process

In preparation for the mining, the mining company first deforests the land. The company also removes the topsoil from the mountains. Regulation requires that the topsoil be later reclaimed, but companies are granted waivers, if there is sufficient proof that there was a low amount of topsoil on the mountaintop. If they are waived, they will use topsoil substitute instead Wikipedia, or in some cases just leave it bare Mountain Justice.

The mining company then drills holes into rock so that they may insert explosives. They then use massive explosives to reach the coal seam. They commonly use an explosive that is a mix of Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil (ANFO). This process removes layers of rock 800-1000 feet tall Earth Justice. This rock, called overburden is then usually dumped into neighboring valleys, creating what is called valley-fill. Massive dragline machines are then used to expose the veins of coal Mountain Justice. The coal veins exist in multiple strata, so the mining company may repeat this process several times Wikipedia.

Supposed Benefits and Refutation

Although this article focuses on the risks of Mountaintop Removal Mining, some believe there are benefits to the process. One of these believed benefits is an increase in local mining jobs. However, studies show that as the coal mining production increased, the number of jobs actually decreased during that same time period. On top of this, there are cases where the mining jobs are being performed by locals whose houses are being destroyed as well. This is the case of Dexter Carver. Carver works for Arch Coal Inc. on a mountaintop removal site very close to his home. The site is so close to his house that the blasts continuously cause damage to his home. He went to the company to seek damage repairs, but the company won’t offer him any support because he didn’t have a pre-blast survey completed on his house. Because of this, Arch claims he can’t prove the damages were cause by the blasts. In a letter written to Carver from the president of the Arch subsidiary running the mine, the president tells him, “You may feel the house shake, but that doesn’t prove anything.” Carver continues to work for the mine because he has no other source of income, and has said, “I told some guys at work that everything I make I’ve got to put back in the house.” (Loeb)

Another supposed benefit is that the result of the flat land caused by the mining is good for future development. Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky, believes in this as well. ”The top ends up flatter, but we’re not talking about Mount Everest. We’re talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I’ve seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres, with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass… I would say the land is of enhanced value, because now you can build on it.” Apparently Senator Rand doesn’t know of all the negatives that occur during the mining process to so callously admire a project finished years after mining had occurred there. The truth to this matter is that there is more than enough room for development in the overlooked Coal River Basin area and although flat land is the result, it is not worth the destruction of beautiful lands and the home to many species of wildlife. (McMorris-Santoro)

Improving local economies is another claim made by proponents of mountaintop removal. This in fact is not the case. In West Virginia, the top 15 coal producing counties have some of the highest poverty levels in the country. Not just the state, the country. These 15 counties also provide 15% of the nation’s coal production which is quite a significant figure. Additionally, West Virginia’s local economies benefited more from tourism in 1998 than it did from coal mining. Even though we can point out that tourism is more beneficial financially to these economies, this argument is still used frequently by mountaintop removal supporters. Furthermore, now that we have seen tourism is the more important industry to West Virginians, and considering mountaintop removal is detrimental to the tourism sector, we can assume West Virginia would benefit from coal mining companies ceasing production in these regions. (Nease)

Environmental Contexts

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR), many scientists agree, is extremely destructive to the area’s water, land, and wildlife. MTR Destroys ecosystems and the damage is irreversible. In the United States MTR takes place in Appalachia, a region with one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the country. Appalachia is home to everything from “flying squirrels to freshwater mussels.” (Reis) Some species have remained in this area for the last ten thousand years, since the last ice age. In July, 2009 a new genus of salamanders was discovered, the first new vertebrate genus to be found in the U.S. in fifty years. Appalachia is an environmental treasure and it’s being destroyed one mountain at a time.

When a MTR site is prepared, all trees and vegetation are removed to expose the bare earth, which is also scraped away to expose the rock underneath. Many scientists believe that MTR practices leave behind such poor soil that the forest is unable to bounce back. “One study found that even fifteen years after a mountaintop was leveled, trees had not re-grown in the area.” (Reis) Those organisms living within this area are killed or displaced, and more often than not, the coal companies are generally not concerned whether or not these organisms are rare or endangered, seldom taking advantage of their rights to such investigations by the fish and wildlife services. There are currently no requirements for formal review from the fish and wildlife services before permits are issues for the mining sites, which would inform the company if there are any endangered species present, as well as the impact their actions could have on the local environment. Current laws, however, do require a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Strangely, they receive these permits despite the abnormal levels of heavy metals, sulfuric acid and other mining chemicals found in the local waterways and even nearby wells used for drinking water. In one recent study, seventy-three of seventy-eight streams in and around mining sites were found to contain deformed fish having toxic levels of selenium in their bodies. Other streams, like those in a nearby valley to a MTR site, are often filled in with the overburden left from removing the top off the mountain. The streams are choked off by debris, killing all the organisms in the stream that couldn’t get away, as well as the ecosystems that are fed by these streams. Thousands of miles of these important streams have been destroyed by MTR and the “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has testified that they ‘do not know of a successful stream creation project in conjunction with [mountaintop removal mining]’.” (Biello)

Overall MTR is a destructive process used to gain a fuel that itself is harmful to the environment. The damage that its processes do to the environment is apparent, but less obvious is the unintended consequences of this damage. Entire ecosystems can depend on key species or water sources, and if they are disrupted a chain reaction of environmental damage could occur.

Property Rights

A major issue facing those who are suffering from mountaintop removal is the mining companies exploitation of property rights. Once the mining companies secure the land they plan to mine on, with it they acquire protection through property rights (McNeil). The problem here is, with this protection, they are destroying our earth, and causing problems to nearby communities. This means these property rights, which essentially say the mining companies can do whatever they want on the land that they own, need to be changed. It makes no sense that companies are offered protection for destroying our planet. This means our society places more value on corporate success than the protection of mother earth. The Goldman prize is awarded annually to environmental heroes from each of the world's six inhabited continental regions, and one of this year’s winners, Maria Gunnoe, offers her take on mountaintop removal, “Go to the most peaceful, beautiful place in the word that you can imagine. And then watch somebody drop a bomb on it. That's, basically, what's happening right here.” (Webb)

Not only are these companies destroying our earth, they are destroying neighboring communities. In many cases, even after light rain, debris, sludge, and rubble are being washed down from mining sites into the community’s streets and homes (Haegele). The destruction has been so severe in some cases that entire communities are being forced to leave their homes. The mining companies cause the damage, but in many cases, they will not take responsibility. This violates the citizens’ property rights, but little is being done to offset the cost of damages. The coal companies want to blame everyone but themselves for the problems they are causing. A few years ago the Pittston Coal Company had been warned that a dam they built to hold in toxic slurry and sludge was dangerous, but they did nothing. Heavy rain caused the pond to fill up and it breached the dam, sending a wall of black water into the valley below. Over 132 million gallons of black wastewater raged through the valley. 125 people were killed, 1100 injured and 4000 were left homeless. Over 1000 cars and trucks were destroyed and the disaster did 50 million dollars in damage. The coal company called it an “act of God” (Franklin).

Assigning responsibility to the mining companies has also become another issue in itself. If the companies deny responsibility to damages, going through the judicial process to attain compensation is difficult and lengthy. These families are stuck with damaged homes that they have to pay for, or left completely homeless, when in reality they have done nothing wrong. The irony is mining companies trample on citizens’ property rights as a routine business practice, but when citizens complain, the companies whine about their own property rights. In July of this year, mining company Massey Energy filed a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit against 14 activists arrested last year in relation to a protest on a mountaintop removal mining site. This is the fifth SLAPP suit Massey has filed in the last 2 years (Hildes). The suit seems to be part of a larger strategy on the part of the mining company to intimidate and silence critics of the company’s safety record and controversial mining practices, particularly mountaintop removal coal mining. The strategy is meant to flex the company’s financial muscles towards those who are thinking about suing Massey for property damage. Although this suit was just filed this year, two of them began in 2008 and are still unresolved. Those citizens who have had their property damaged by Massey and companies like Massey can’t afford to pay legal fees for cases that potentially could last years. The benefits of mountaintop removal rest only with the companies profits, being that the energy these companies provide account for less than 5% of all electricity in our country. For that 5%, neighboring communities experience immense suffering. (Webb)

Human Health Impact


Photo Credit: Onfinite

Human Health is arguably the most important issue with Mountaintop Removal coal mining. It is affecting the air we breathe, the soil we farm, and the water we drink. Regulations in the Clean Water Act, Surface Mining Control, and Reclamation Act require companies to mitigate damage to streams and restore the mountaintops when mining ends. When mining ends? When the mining ends, the damage has been done. It’s far too late by then. Power plants generate growing amounts of coal ash waste each year. It's poisoning our drinking water and the air we breathe, polluting our rivers, streams and lakes, and destroying fish and wildlife. A recent study done in January by 12 leading ecologists, hydrologists, and engineers, concludes that these reparations barely scratch the surface. (Lucas) This so-called cleaning up, simply is not enough. The environmental contexts of pollution are the core relation to human health related issues. Emily Bernhardt, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment states that “Some areas of southern West Virginia have more than 20 percent of their surface area within surface mines.

The water-quality effects of all this activity are additive; the more mines and processing facilities you have, the more affects you see, and the farther downstream mining-related pollution is likely to extend”, states Bernhardt. (Lucas) The water used to wash the coal is clean going in, and full of toxic residue coming out. Heavy metals, sulfuric acid, and other mine contaminants are leaking into waterways and drinking-water wells; deformed fish carrying toxic levels of selenium were found streams affected by mountaintop mining. Sulfate content is one of the preferred markers for mountaintop removal. Even though sulfate is a natural and necessary element in the human body, too much can be toxic. High levels of sulfate found in the body can cause extreme dehydration through diarrhea. (Backer) Chemists are also working on the DNA damage that is being done from the changing organisms in the affected ecosystems. The waste produced is threatening aquatic life. Fish containing high levels of the toxins are not safe for human consumption.

Along with water poisoning, comes another and even more serious threat to human health. Groups such as Appalachian Voices, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club have cited adverse health effects related to surface mining, including high instances of cancer in mining communities. (Ollstein) Breathing the polluted air produced from mountaintop removal is a high concern when it comes to human health. Air containing billions of cubic feet of methane is left after the mining process is complete. Methane is an odorless gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Also, Nicholas school team at Duke University have researched and found that studies suggest chronic exposure to pollution in mining-contaminated air and water is associated with learning disabilities and lower birth weights in children. Continuing on this, there is evidence of links with kidney disease, breast cancers, lung disease and dental problems in adults. (Sheppard)

Finally, effects from Mountaintop Removal Mining have been also seen in our earth’s soils. One study found that even 15 years after a mountaintop was leveled, trees had not regrown in the area, possibly because of the poor soils left afterwards. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has testified that they "do not know of a successful stream creation project in conjunction with [mountaintop removal mining]." (Biello) The earth’s soil is a fragile piece of work. Our crops are incredibly important to both our economy and more importantly our health. More and more land is being developed and left un-farmable, leaving our mountains a vital asset to our farming and crop-growing grounds. Mountaintop Removal mining is raising serious issues with the land below us.


Through the evidence provided, it is beyond clear that the risks of mountaintop removal mining greatly outweigh the benefits. It destroys entire ecosystems, wipes out exstensive amounts of wildlife, and it robs people of a clean and healthy environment. It poisons waterways which inherently poisons local communites drinking water; affecting both animal populations and people alike. It infringes upon property rights of nearby residents, while mining companies exploit these same property rights for their collective benefit. The only noteworthy benefit of this destructive process ends up in the wallets of big coal company executives. The claims made that mountaintop removal produce a massive amount of jobs and pump money into the surrounding areas economy just is not true. So why are we still using this harmful method to unearth yet another environmentally harmful substance? The risks are just too great. Mountaintop removal creates environmental havoc in our nation and we could be losing a treasure trove of biodiversity that is the mountains of Appalachia. Due to the many unjustices mentioned, we can't let this continue, mountaintop removal must be stopped.


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