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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.