George Mason Law School

If the Appalachians are to survive, mountaintop removal must be denied

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September 18, 2009

1:52 AM

The Appalachian mountains are 480 million years old. It is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. For the millennia they have stood like sentinels between the ocean and the vast American landscape; but for the past thirty years, the mountains have been in danger from a form of coal mining called “mountaintop removal.”

Mountaintop removal is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as the removal of “500 feet or more of the summit [of a mountain] to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.” In essence, the miners treat the mountain like a cake, with the coal as its cream filling.

Every day, miners use several tons of dynamite in the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and Tennessee to lop off the top of the cake to get at the hidden seams of coal. The EPA has concluded that over 380,000 acres of Appalachia were destroyed between 1983 to 2001 by mountaintop mining. An additional 1,200 miles of streams have been buried beneath the rubble and waste pushed over into the valleys from the leveled mountaintops.

In his book, “Coal River,” journalist Michael Shnayerson quotes the EPA’s prediction that, “assuming the practice continues … more than 1.4 million acres will be destroyed before all the mountaintop coal in Appalachia is mined — in sum, almost as large an area as Delaware.” The destruction caused by mountaintop removal can be seen from space — Google Earth provides a good, if outdated, idea of the extent of the damage.

But what does all this mean? For us, cheaper energy. Over half of America’s electricity comes from coal, but no matter what the coal industry’s ads say, there is no such thing as clean coal. There is a price to pay for this cheap energy, and more than just the greenhouse gases that the coal use creates. Yes, there’s the catastrophic damage to the environment, but is that all?

I’ve heard it argued that if it does nothing else positive, at least mountaintop removal creates jobs in a region rife with unemployment. However, according to Dr. Walter R. Hibbard, professor of engineering at Virginia Tech, “unemployment … has grown in tandem with record-high coal production.” Mountaintop removal is cheap because it favors on mechanization and explosives, and therefore requires little labor. It takes only a few dozen men to level a mountaintop. If anything has killed jobs in the coal fields, it’s mountaintop removal.

And then there are the human costs of mountaintop mining. Aside from losing their mountains, forests and homeland, many in the coal region are losing their health. A recent New York Times article documented the pervasive disregard for the Clean Water Act by coal companies. Billions of gallons of toxic coal slurry — created after washing the extracted coal — are deposited into open impoundments every year. The slurry contains highly toxic levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium, which seep into wells and underground reservoirs, poisoning local drinking water.

These impoundments have also been known to break — Buffalo Creek, W.V. in 1972, Martin County, Ky. in 2000, and Roane County, Tenn. last December. These spills released billions of gallons of toxic slurry into rivers and nearby neighborhoods, causing millions of dollars in damage while claiming several hundred human lives.

The story of the coal region’s human and environmental suffering is more than can fit in one, two or even 10 articles. The extent of the damage is shocking, the destruction irreparable. And what do we get for it?
Our energy, a little cheaper. The current administration has approved some permits for mountaintop removal while rejecting others, so a clear stance on the issue by the administration has not been taken. Thus, it falls to the people — especially those of us getting our energy from coal — to send the message to our leaders at all political levels that mountaintop removal mining is an unacceptable practice and one that forsakes a common treasure, our “purple mountain majesties,” for cheap coal.

E-mail Beau Wright at [email protected]

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