Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: An American Tragedy

Mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is one of America’s worst environmental crimes. Every day, across Appalachia, the coal industry literally blows the tops off the mountains: clear-cutting forests, wiping out natural habitats and poisoning rivers and drinking water. Not only are these mountains lost forever, but the heritage and the health of families across the region are being sacrificed. For a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, the tradeoff does not add up.

Rainforest Action Network is partnering with a community-based movement from Appalachia to compel the Environmental Protection Agency and other key agencies to ban the practice.

Impacts to Mountains and Forests

MTR is a mining practice where explosives are used to remove the tops of mountains and expose the small seams of coal that lie beneath. It is estimated the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb is detonated every week in Appalachia. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

Before mining can begin, tracts of deciduous forests are clearcut (often burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills). These unique hardwood forests are some of the most biologically diverse in North America.

Impacts to Drinking Water and Human Health

MTR mining poses significant threats to water quality in Appalachia, despite the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act designed to protect our nation’s precious water supplies. According to a 2005 environmental impact statement, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or contaminated.

After blasting has occurred, waste from mining operations is systematically dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. This waste then releases toxic metals, killing life in streams and polluting ground water. Health problems such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, and skin rashes have been found in correlation with people who drink water from wells contaminated by coal mining. This problem was exacerbated in 2002 when the Bush Administration changed rules in the Clean Water Act, allowing waste material to be considered “fill”, effectively legalizing the dumping of toxic mining waste directly into Appalachian waterways.

Once coal is extracted, it is then washed and treated, resulting in waste water called coal sludge, a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, selenium and chromium. Billions of gallons are then stored in vast, unlined impoundments or injected for storage in abandoned underground-mines.

Impoundments are often held in place by mining debris or earthen dams, making them unstable. Sludge dams have been known to fail. In October 2000, residents of Martin County, Kentucky suffered 306 million gallons of slurry entering their water supply. The disastrous spill was over 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Mitigation and Regulation Efforts

A recent peer-reviewed report in the journal Science concluded that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.

While robust reclamation efforts are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. Attempts to reclaim the land after MTR coal-mining operations generally result in abandoned, unmanaged and unproductive scrublands. Clear cutting and topsoil loss disrupts the absorption of rainfall, which has resulted in severe flash floods.

Impacts on Jobs and Clean Energy Opportunities

Coal companies use MTR mining methods because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while significantly reducing the number of workers required compared to conventional methods. The coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. We must embrace a clean energy future for our economic survival as well as our environmental and public health. Diversification of the Appalachian economy is now more important than ever.

Appalachia has a wealth of clean energy resources that can be developed to provide new jobs and tax revenues, including wind, solar, low-impact hydro, and sustainable biomass. This development can especially support rural areas, those hardest hit by the declining economy. With political and financial leadership we could transition Appalachia from coal country to clean energy country.

The Way Forward

Polls demonstrate that most Americans oppose MTR removal coal mining.

RAN is demanding a moratorium on all new MTR permits, reversal of the Bush Administration rules changes to the stream buffer zone and fill rules, and strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act for existing MTR operations.

5 thoughts on “Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: An American Tragedy

  1. Milan

    RAN certainly seems to be one of the groups working most energetically to combat climate change.

    A couple of weeks ago, some anti-oil sands protesters outside the building where I work gave me a very slick pamphlet exposing the greenwashing being undertaken by Royal Bank.

  2. .

    Breaking: Anti-MTR Activists Risk Arrest at EPA HQ with Elaborate Protest
    Demand Immediate Action to Stop Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

    Activists Risk Arrest with Elaborate Protest at EPA HQ; Demand Immediate Action to Stop Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

    Group Erects Purple Mountain Majesty At EPA; Say “If Administrator Lisa Jackson Won’t Visit the Appalachian Mountains, They Will Bring The Mountains to Her”

    WASHINGTON— In an attempt to further pressure EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to enforce the Clean Water Act and halt mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR), activists early this morning erected two 20-foot-tall, purple tripod structures in front of the agency’s headquarters. A pair of activists perched at the top of the tripods have strung a 25-foot sign in front of the EPA’s door that reads, “EPA: pledge to end mountaintop removal in 2010.” Six people are locked to the tripods and say they won’t leave unless Administrator Jackson commits to a flyover visit of the Appalachian Mountains and MTR sites, which she has never done before.

  3. .

    Citing “irreversible damage,” EPA nears veto of mountaintop removal permit.
    March 29, 2010

    Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its first Clean Water Act veto ever for a previously permitted mountaintop removal project, “the largest mountaintop-removal permit in West Virginia history.” Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has the story in this repost.

    The veto would reverse a permit granted in 2007 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Arch Coal to dig a 2,278-acre coal stripmine and fill six valleys and 43,000 linear feet of streams with the toxic debris. Based on the “unequivocal” evidence that the damage from mountaintop mining is irreversible, the EPA is finally enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect West Virginia’s residents:

    “Coal, and coal mining, is part of our nation’s energy future, and for that reason EPA has made repeated efforts to foster dialogue and find a responsible path forward. But we must prevent the significant and irreversible damage that comes from mining pollution — and the damage from this project would be irreversible. This recommendation is consistent with our broader Clean Water Act efforts in Central Appalachia. EPA has a duty under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on these waters for drinking, fishing and swimming.”

  4. .

    More evidence that Sen. Byrd sees the writing on the wall for coal

    Now, here’s Sen. Robert Byrd (D):

    “The announcement by the EPA today of its Proposed Determination to exercise its veto authority over the Spruce #1 Mine permit begins a process that enables the company and the public to comment on the matter in writing and at public hearings. I would strongly encourage all parties to seek a balanced, fair, reasonable compromise.

    What makes Byrd’s measured, conciliatory statement so remarkable is not just its contrast with the other three reactions but its contrast with a long career spent fervently defending the coal industry against any regulation or restraint. Byrd has been been scrapping for coal in Congress since 1952, nine years before Barack Obama was born. But this isn’t the first sign that he’s gone rogue on coal — in Dec. 2009 he issued a remarkable statement condemning the “fear mongering” and “grandstanding” used by coal proponents against Obama’s administration.”

    What’s going on? What, in the twilight of his career, has led the longest serving member of Congress to rethink coal’s place in modern Appalachia? A cynical sort might point out that the senator has been hospitalized several times in recent years and is reportedly in fragile health. Perhaps his staff has mostly taken over.

  5. .

    Appalachian terraforming

    IMAGINE you head a municipal utility company. Your coal-fired power plant is aging. Your plant is among the 47% of American plants that have not yet installed the scrubbers needed to bring it into compliance with new EPA regulations. You therefore face a choice. Do you a) install the scrubbers, b) build a new coal-fired power plant, c) build a natural-gas-fired power plant or d) invest in solar or wind power? All four options are expensive, and none is perfect, but the latter two, in most circumstances, are clearly the better options.

    A week ago I wrote an article arguing that we are in or nearing the end of the American coal era. The country’s coal-fired power plants are aging; natural gas abounds; the installation costs of renewables are falling; and environmental regulations are growing stricter and being properly enforced. Coal may well continue to provide more energy than any other single source for some decades to come, but it will probably never again generate the majority of America’s energy, as it did for much of the 19th and all of the 20th centuries. Still, coal will not vanish overnight. Neither will mountaintop-removal mining, which now accounts for much of the coal Appalachia produces. But, as this video shows, some ingenious Kentuckians are figuring out how to restore removed mountaintops.

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