S: Mountaintop Removal
FC: Mountaintop Removal | By Jenny Uehling
1: Larry Gibson’s family has lived on the same plot of land since 1797. Located in the Kayford Mountains of West Virginia, the plot was once 500 acres and surrounded by other cabins and the pristine forests of the Appalachian wilderness. | Now, Gibson’s land is reduced to only 50 acres – a miniscule area compared to the 12,000 acres of mountaintop removal sites that now surround his property. Each day, he listens to explosions that crack his house's foundation, cover the area in a layer of coal dust, and destroy the once beautiful view from the top of his property. The toxic waste of the operation is dumped into nearby waterways, adding a “poisonous flavoring” to the streams that supply drinking water to Gibson’s community (Motavalli). Gibson’s is the last property remaining in the area, surrounded by the wreckage of mountaintop removal (Motavalli). | Kayford Mountain | On the cover: Mountain near Buffalo in Logan County, WV
2: Mountaintop removal is performed when coal companies remove the tops of mountains in order to reach the coal seams beneath. The process involves several steps. Companies first clear cut the forests on top of the mountains. Afterwards, miners utilize dynamite to blast off the rock and other material to expose coal seams below. Earth-moving machines called draglines, which are 8 million pounds each and can move enough soil in 8 hours for 40 million houseplants (Arch Coal Inc., qtd. in Reese), are used to access coal seams. The rock, debris, and other waste material is scraped into adjoining drainage valleys (Kriesky and Lindsey). This excess material, called mine spoil, often buries the streams in these adjacent valleys (Palmer et al). | What is Mountaintop Removal? | Mountaintop removal, also known as MTR, is a type of surface mining that occurs in the Appalachian Mountains, namely in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia (Mitchell). The practice is especially prevalent in West Virginia, where “MTR operations account for one-third of the coal mined” (Barry 121). So far, 500 mountains have been leveled as a result of MTR (Kriesky). | Mountaintop removal at Hoover Knob, WV | Dragline | Mountaintop removal near Kayford Mountain, WV
3: “With mountaintop removal you’re able to mine seams that you could not mine with underground mining because they are so thin – but it’s a very high-quality coal” (Roger Horton, qtd. In McQuaid 2). | Origins | Environmental Benefits | Coal mining in Appalachia originated after World War II as the dominant energy producer and source of employment in the region (Kriesky). Since then, coal reigns as one of the major businesses in the Appalachian states. Residents often refer to major companies, including Arch Coal, Horizon Natural Resources, and Massey Energy (Motavalli), as “King Coal” because of their overriding influence on the states’ economies. 70% of coal extracted in the U.S. comes from surface mines such as those in Appalachia, and 90% of the coal extracted in the U.S. feeds “coal-fired power plants to provide electricity to more than 50 percent of American homes” (Reece 3). Americans are highly dependent on this coal, seeing as it powers key components of their everyday lives. | Though environmentalists generally frown upon burning coal because of its release of harmful gases, mountaintop removal actually helps to create cleaner energy. When the 1970 Clean Air Act mandated the use of lower-sulfur coal, companies turned to the Appalachians and surface mining to remove the low-sulfur bituminous coal located beneath mountaintops (Kriesky and Mitchell). This coal “burns with a cleaner, hotter efficiency in the electric power plants of America” (Mitchell). | "KING COAL" | Mountain near Rawl in Mingo County, WV
4: Mountaintop removal is more efficient and less expensive than many other methods of mining. For instance, contour mining, used in the 1970s and 1980s, left large amounts of coal under mountaintops “Mountaintop mining enabled the industry to become more productive and efficient by removing all the coal available” (Walker Machinery Co.). The coal removed from mountaintop mining is more valuable in today’s market, and extraction methods are safer for miners. MTR is also much more productive per person – companies can remove two to three times as much coal per miner as companies using underground mines can (Lindsey). Mountaintop removal also ensures that companies will not revisit the site later to mine it again for coal – all coal available is extracted. Therefore, restoration efforts will not be affected by further mining operations in the area (Walker Machinery Co.). | Economic Benefits of Mountaintop Removal | Mountaintop removal is also integral to the economies of poorer Appalachian states. For instance, in West Virginia, 16 percent live below the federal poverty line, and taxes from bituminous coal, extracted through mountaintop removal, help to fuel the state’s struggling economy (Motavalli, Mitchell). In general, the residents of West Virginia recognize the importance of the coal industry. 78% of West Virginians “agree that ‘the coal industry is the biggest contributor to the state’s economy’” (Walker Machine Co.). Additionally, MTR is helping to produce more jobs. As companies strive towards producing cleaner coal, several positions are arising for “researchers, scientists, utility technicians, natural resource workers, [and] computer engineers” (Walker Machine Co.). The various branches of the coal industry employ a large portion of West Virginians, and will likely create more jobs in the future (Walker Machine Co.). | A statue commemorating coal miners in West Virginia. Coal is hugely important to the WV economy. | Mountaintop removal in Boone County, WV
5: Mountaintop removal near Kirk in Mingo County, WV | When mining companies level the tops of mountains, they create flat surfaces perfect for development. West Virginia is a very mountainous state, so flat areas are rare and valuable. Leveled mountains provide ideal locations for buildings or commercial ventures. So far, West Virginians have used flat space created by MTR to build “two high schools, two ‘premier’ golf courses, a regional jail, a county airport, a 985-acre complex for the FBI near Clarksburg, an aquaculture facility, and a hardwood flooring plant in Mingo County that now employs 250 workers” (Mitchell). Companies are also exploring the option of using the flattened areas for commercial forests (Mitchell). By offering these flat areas, MTR sites can serve important purposes for communities after mining operations are completed. | Some post-MTR sites are converted to golf courses
6: Harmful Byproducts of Mountaintop Removal | Before | After | Mountaintop removal operations on Mud River in Lincoln County, WV
7: Effects on Water Quality and Mountain Streams | MTR can have terrible effects on Appalachian streams -- it pollutes streams and water supplies in nearby areas and farther downstream. This contamination is often caused by leaking of slurry impoundments. After coal is extracted from mines, it is washed, and the waste of this washing process, known as slurry, sludge, or blackwater (Kriesky), is often injected into abandoned mines. It can also be placed in large waste impoundments, which are oftentimes ponds dammed with rock and soil. This slurry is toxic, containing noncombustible elements, heavy metals, and the washing chemicals used to clean the coal (Kriesky, Birchard). Oftentimes, these waste receptacles leak and pollute water. In fact, a survey conducted by the Department of Natural Resources indicates that 70 percent of West Virginia’s streams/rivers are polluted (Barry 123). There is strong evidence of these toxic chemicals in water ecosystems: “Water, streambed sediments, and fish tissue often harbor concentrations of potentially toxic trace elements, including nickel, lead, cadmium, iron, and selenium, that exceed government standards” (Lindsey). These elements can create a host of problems for Appalachian ecosystems. | Marfork Coal Comapny's Burshy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, designed to hold 8 billion gallons of sludge
8: In addition to waste impoundments, valley fills (adjacent valleys filled with the excess rock and other waste of mining) can cause several problems in nearby streams. A study by Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland indicates that streams below valley fills in the central Appalachians show increases in pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids. Palmer states this is due to “elevated concentrations of sulfate, calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate ions” (Palmer et. al.). Palmer’s team discovered that increases in the concentrations of metals, as well as decreases in the health of organisms, "were associated with increases in stream water sulfates in streams below mined sites” (Palmer et al). She also notes that increased sulfate concentrations can disrupt water and ion balance in aquatic ecosystems by increasing nitrogen and phosphorus availability (Palmer et al). In other words, this increase in phosphates leads to nutrient levels that are far too high and disrupt ecosystems. | Studies by Palmer and other scientists also indicate increased selenium levels in streams near mountaintop removal sites. One study indicates that, of 78 mountaintop mining and valley fill streams, 73 had selenium concentrations higher than the threshold for toxic bioaccumulation (Palmer et. al.). Selenium can bioaccumulate, or increase successively in tissues as predators consume prey containing selenium. One study shows a connection between increased levels of selenium and deformities, such as curved spines and two eyes on one side of the head, in fish larvae (McQuaid). The increased selenium levels can also lead to reproductive failures in adult fish and birds that consume these fish (Palmer et al).
9: According to EPA estimates, over 1,200 miles of streams have already been degraded by MTR (McQuaid). | Valley fills not only affect the chemistry of streams – they can also physically bury streambeds vital to the correct functioning of an ecosystem. “724 miles of streams were completely buried by valley fills between 1985 and 2001” (Lindsey). Though these streams are not always present during certain seasons or times of drought, they are essential to the correct functioning of the ecosystem. They are the “headwaters for steady-running ‘perennial’ streams below, and the foundation for the broader forest ecosystem: most notably a breeding ground for insects that provide the biomass to sustain birds and other animal life” (McQuaid). Valley fills either or pollute or completely eliminate streams, and therefore effect water farther downstream as well. Though mining companies try to restore these streams after they complete the mining process, Margaret Palmer studied over 27,000 US river/stream restoration projects and found no mining-related projects that were ecologically successful (McQuaid). Once the streams are gone, they are “irreplaceable,” according to many scientists (McQuaid). As MTR pollutes and destroys more streams, the forest ecosystems that depend on these streams are also negatively affected. | The "reclaimed" portion of Hobet mine in West Virginia, complete with a coal sludge impoundment filled with toxic chemicals. Many reclamation efforts fail to restore streams, or even completely bury streams. Additionally, the leakage of this impoundment could pollute existing streams.
10: Flooding | When companies perform mountaintop removal, they strip mountaintops of all their forest and vegetation cover. This vegetation helps to hold soil in place, and also absorbs much of the rainwater that falls. “Between rainfalls, mountain soil acts as a king of sponge: Some of its water is taken up by trees and other plants, some gradually released into streams” (McQuaid). This system developed over millions of years and adapted to patterns of snow and rainfall. However, without this vegetation holding soil in place, the soil on the edge of mountains cannot absorb as much water. In fact, mining companies often use crushed rocks for reclamation, which do not absorb rainfall (McQuaid). Additionally, the “alterations in topography, loss of topsoil, and soil compaction from use of heavy machinery reduce infiltration capacity and promote runoff” (Palmer et. al.) Thus, instead of a steady flow with a swell during rain, there are “sudden, extreme pulses [of water] during storms” (McQuaid). This can lead to greater runoff and more flooding downstream (Palmer et. al.). It could take thousands of years before similar vegetation and soils develop again. | These floods often pose a threat to human life. Vivian Stockman, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, states that 12 West Virginians have died since 2000 because of MTR-related floods (Mitchell).
11: Loss of Biodiversity | The EPA estimates that a forested area the size of Delaware will be destroyed by 2013 as a result of mountaintop removal operations (McQuaid). | When MTR operations strip mountains of their forest covers, they reduce the biodiversity of once incredibly diverse areas. The deciduous forests destroyed by MTR support some of the highest diversity in North America, and serve as habitats for many endangered species (Palmer et. al.). Mountaintop removal operations fracture natural ecosystems into several smaller “islands.” This fracturing process destroys the ability of these areas to support biodiversity and encourages invasive species to spread (McQuaid). For instance, cerulean warblers, birds that migrate to and nest in the Appalachian Mountains, have dropped 82 percent in the past 40 years (McQuaid). Though companies claim they will restore MTR sites, Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch notes that the herbs and plants that grow on Appalachian ridges have evolved over thousands of years. “Recreate that forest? You couldn’t do it in 1,500 years” (Bonds, qtd. in Mitchell). | Mountaintop removal practices can destroy important natural cycles that sustain mountain ecosystems and support life in an area. With the huge changes in water flow and loss of soil and vegetation, carbon and nitrogen cycles can suffer. In 2008, Keith Eshleman and his colleagues discovered “many signs of impaired ecosystem health at reclaimed strip mines, including low levels of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus” (McQuaid). Valley fills that block or inhibit the flow of streams can also prohibit nutrient cycling and the production of organic matter important for health farther downstream (Palmer et. al.). Thus, MTR not only affects the immediate area -- it can have huge impacts miles away from the actual mining sites. | Cerulean warbler
12: Appalachian streams support a huge amount of biodiversity, and pollution or stream blockage caused by MTR can greatly reduce this multitude of life. Mayflies, for instance, are important indicators of the overall health of an ecosystem (McQuaid). EPA scientists discovered high concentrations of ions from metals and sulfates from mining operations is killing large numbers of mayflies. Greg Pond, one of the scientists involved, noted the alarming nature of this discovery: “Of the eight to 10 species you’ll find in a small sample, often, we were getting only one or zero” (Pond, qtd. in McQuaid). MTR is also affecting other aquatic insects, notes Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University. These aquatic insects “feed larger life forms by shredding leaf litter and sending the nutrient rich particles downstream” (Mitchell). When valley fills destroy the flow of streams, this connection is broken: “These insects provide the link between a forest and a river...Bury their habitat and you lose the link” (Stout, qtd. in Mitchell). The Appalachian Mountains have important connections with other ecosystems; therefore, MTR's effects of biodiversity are widespread, and can even exist outside of Appalachia.
13: Impacts on Human Health | Antimony – “increased blood cholesterol with a decrease in blood sugar” Arsenic – “skin damage, problems with the circulatory system, and increase[d] cancer risk” Barium – “increased blood pressure” Beryllium – “intestinal lesions” Cadmium/Mercury – “kidney damage” Chromium – “allergic dermatitis” Lead – “delays in physical or mental development and deficits in attention span and learning abilities in infants and childrenkidney problems and high blood pressure [in adults]” Selenium – “hair or fingernail loss, numbness in fingers or toes and circulatory problems” Thallium – “changes in blood with kidney, intestine, or liver problems” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2010b, qtd. in Birchard). | Effects of Chemicals from Coal Slurry on Human Health | Water in some areas affected by MTR have “arsenic levels as high as 130 times what the EPA deems safe” (House). | Slurry from the process of washing coal often leaks into local water supplies. This polluted water not only has negative effects on biodiversity in streams – it also has deleterious effects on human health. In an experiment testing the chemical makeup of water found near mining sites, Zackary Birchard found numerous chemical levels that exceeded state standards. The elements found included antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, lead, selenium, aluminum, iron, zinc, manganese, and thallium (Birchard). These chemicals are all also found in coal slurry, and likely leaked in local water supplies from impoundments or injected mines. On the left is a table of the various effects of these chemicals on human health. The presence of these and other chemicals in drinking water can cause serious health problems for the people of Appalachia. | Coal slurry
14: Marsh Fork Elementary School | Both contact with contaminated stream water, as well as exposure to airborne toxins and dust, can cause serious illness in Appalachian residents. Regions in which MTR is performed show higher rates of adult hospitalizations: "hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease” (Palmer et al). MTR can have a poisonous effect on the health of Appalachian residents. | Silas House, a resident of Kentucky, recounts this story of stream pollution's effects on Appalachian residents: “[M]y friend Judy’s grandson was playing in a creek when he was suddenly surrounded by dozens of dead fish. Tests later proved that a coal company was releasing polyacrylamide – a cancer-causing agent used to prepare coal for burning – into the creek. When Judy complained to the state, no one replied. She recently died of brain cancer” (House). | The photograph on the left shows the waste impoundment that sits just above Marsh Fork Elementary. The school is just out of the shot on the right. Below, an aerial shot shows Guyandotte Mountain after MTR operations. The impoundment is just visible in the center right of the photograph, and the school is just below the impoundment.
15: Waste impoundments holding toxic coal slurry pose a threat to human life because their breakage or failure could send huge amounts of this toxic waste flowing over inhabited towns and property. These waste impoundments do not have perfect track records – they have broken in the past. For instance, in October 2000, a waste pond collapsed in Inez, Kentucky. All water systems in the area had to be shut down because of the pollution released (Mitchell). “The EPA ranked the incident, involving more than 300 million gallons of coal slurry, one of the worst environmental disasters in the southeastern United States” (McQuaid). Currently, another impoundment holding 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge is located 400 yards above Marsh Fork Elementary School, which houses 230 students. The impoundment is ranked a Class C facility, meaning that its failure could cause loss of life (Mitchell). The lives of these students are placed in danger daily because of the presence of the impoundment. | In the photograph on the left, Marsh Fork Elementary School's baseball field is the green space in the upper left corner. The MTR operation dominates the rest of the photograph. The slurry impoundment is located on the lower right corner. The photograph on the right shows a different view that shows more of the impoundment.
16: Effects on Lifestyle and Jobs in Appalachia | Mountains are parts of people’s lives – they oftentimes act as sources of spiritual solace, and play important roles in the culture of Appalachia. As mountains are destroyed, Appalachian residents feel as if coal mining companies are moving parts of their identities. It seems as if people elsewhere care more about coal than about Appalachian residents' wellbeing. | Though they have one another to turn to for support and solace, Appalachian residents lose ground every day as more explosions shake their towns and more mountains disappear. Companies use more than three million pounds of explosives per day, shaking the foundations of homes and causing air pollution (Motavalli). Residents must face several dangers, such as the chance of large rocks falling near homes (Barry 122). It is not surprising that some families take the financial incentives offered by companies to leave their homes and make way for MTR operations. | Mountain near Rawl, WV | With the destruction of the mountains comes the destruction of these peoples’ traditions and identities. The practice is “scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above” (House). Appalachian residents must struggle on a daily basis to protect their traditional way of life, which has existed for generations. “They are tied to family, land, and their culture in much the same way as that described by Native Americans (Grantham-Campbell, 1998; Yazzie, 2000)” (George). Together, they oftentimes band together to oppose MTR practices.
17: “Like genocide in slow motion, the people of southern West Virginia are wasting away each day, worn down by political and legal loopholes that block their attempts to survive” (George). | Despite the fact that West Virginia and other similar central Appalachian states are located in natural resource-rich regions, they are still economically depressed (Barry 118). The resources in the area are extracted mainly by outside corporate powerhouses. Though many people of the region protest these corporate ventures, others simply feel a “sense of powerlessness and depression” (Kriesky). This trend manifests itself as more and more residents migrate away from these Appalachian communities and become dependent on welfare. Drug abuse incidents are also rising in the region (Kriesky). | Though companies practicing mountaintop removal claim that it creates jobs, MTR has actually reduced the number of miners in West Virginia and other states. It requires fewer workers, and therefore provides less employment and job opportunities, than other types of coal mining. “In the last 10 years, mine production increased 32 percent but coal employment dropped 29 percent” (Motavalli). Additionally, according to Charlestown Gazette journalist Ken Ward, the 120,000 miners in West Virginia in 1950 dropped to 19,000 miners by the 1990s (Barry 122). MTR is depleting the number of mining jobs available to many poor residents. | Protesters in Washington D.C. Their signs read "Coal Poisons People" | Hobet MTR operations near Mud River, Lincoln County, WV
18: Janice Nease, who grew up in Kayford, West Virginia: “Those mountains are a part of us. When I look at them, I know there is a creator” (Motavalli). | Larry Bush of Save Our Cumberland Mountains states: “This isn’t mining – it’s rape” (Bush, qtd. in Motavalli). | Patricia Bragg, resident of small town near MTR site: “People raise millions to save whales and walruses and birds, but the state doesn’t lift a hand to save the most precious thing in the world, a person’s way of life” (Bragg, qtd. in Barry 122). | Silas House, Kentucky resident: “We were also told the success of the mines mattered above all else, that if we complained about the dust, noise and disrespect pumped out by the mine in our community, people would lose jobs” (House). | Perspectives
19: Unsurprisingly, a large amount of controversy exists over MTR, and various laws exist to reduce its detrimental effects on the environment. The Clean Water Act is still a major force against MTR (Motavalli). It states that mining companies cannot bury streams with mining waste. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, on the other hand, states that “mining companies [must] restore the land to its original shape – the ‘approximate original contour’ – as best they can” (Lindsey). However, if companies can prove that they will develop a post-mining site for some other purpose – a school or shopping center, for example – then they could be granted a variance to the policy (Lindsey). Reclamation efforts are usually not very effective. “Many reclaimed areas show little or no regrowth of woody vegetation and minimal carbon storage even after 15 years” (Palmer et al). Usually, mining companies try to complete reclamation as quickly as possible. Typically, they just bulldoze the site and plant Asian grass (McQuaid). These reclamation efforts obviously bring the sites to nowhere near their previous biodiversity. | Many community organizations and groups have materialized to oppose mountaintop removal, but they have had limited success against giant coal companies such as Arch Coal, Horizon Natural Resources, and Massey Energy (Motavalli). Many lawsuits and court decisions are based off evidence that mountaintop removal coal companies are violating the formerly mentioned acts. However, local communities or small nonprofit groups cannot match the expensive coal companies' attorneys (Motavalli). That being said, some cases have been more successful than others. For instance, “U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers moved to block permits for four MTR mines in West Virginia, citing what he called ‘the alarming cumulative stream loss’ caused by the crushing weight of valley fills” (Motavalli). Success is not impossible, and residents will certainly keep fighting. | Opposition and Alternatives | Reclamation efforts at Hoover Knob, WV
20: Several nonprofit groups oppose MTR, including Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, and ilovemountains.org. | The struggling West Virginia economy has several other options for income besides mining. Alternative energy could someday represent a viable solution to the controversy and provide jobs and income for poor West Virginians, in addition to reducing pollution from coal. For instance, “[a] National Academy of Sciences review indicated that wind power in Appalachia could help offset greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other fossil fuels” (Motavalli). Grassroots organizations encourage other options as well, such as custom furniture-making (Motavalli). Additionally, there are innumerable tourism opportunities in the Appalachian Mountains, and the revenue generated could prove an important source of income (McQuaid). All of these options are “greener” than mining jobs and prevent the harmful effects of MTR on the environment and on the lives of the people in the state. | An image issued by ilovemountains.org | Tourism option in West Virginia
21: As mountaintop removal continues throughout the Appalachian Mountains, it is important for consumers to weigh the consequences of such mining operations on their own lives. Its cessation, once and for all, might save the environment of the region and help residents restore their lives to normalcy. However, MTR’s absence would certainly also affect the states’ economies, as well as the U.S.'s supply of energy and access to electricity. When considering operations with consequences as huge as mountaintop removal’s, it is difficult to find middle ground on the issue. However, it is perhaps even more difficult to maneuver through the conflicting viewpoints to understand the ultimate question: do the costs outweigh the benefits of mountaintop removal? The answer remains to be seen. | Mountain near Buffalo in Logan County, WV | Mountaintop removal in Pickering Knob, WV
22: Works Cited | Barry, Joyce. “Mountaineers Are Always Free?: An Examination of the Effects of Mountaintop Removal in West Virginia.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 29.1/2 (2001): 116-130. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.
23: Mitchell, John G. “When Mountains Move.” National Geographic Mar. 2006: n. pag. National Geographic. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.
24: Works Cited - Images | A River Runs Through It. 4 Oct. 2009. Flickr. Yahoo, 2011. Web. 7 Apr. 2011.
25: Jane Bald Panorama. 25 May 2010. Flickr. Yahoo, 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2011.
26: Kessinger, Kent. Mountain near Kirk, West Virginia. 7 Sept. 2006. Flickr. Yahoo, 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2011.
27: Stockman, Vivian. Before – Hobet MTR Operation on Mud River. 7 June 2005. Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.