Even with new technologies in alternative fuels becoming increasingly available, efficient, and cost-effective, the world’s citizens are more reliable on fossil fuels than ever before. A new form of strip mining has emerged in the Appalachia region of the United States with devastating effects on the surrounding landscape and its people; it is called mountaintop removal.
What it is: “Mountaintop removal is any method of surface coal mining that destroys a mountaintop or ridgeline, whether or not the mined area will be returned to what is legally described as the ‘approximate original contour.’ Methods of mountaintop removal coal mining include, but are not limited to: cross-ridge mining, box-cut method mining, steep slope mining, area mining or mountaintop mining” (http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/mtr101/). Mountaintop removal takes place mainly in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee.
How it’s done: The first step in mountaintop removal mining is clearing trees, vegetation, and topsoil. Oftentimes, coal companies are working fast to stay within a profitable time frame of coal prices, and so the tress are not used for commercial use, but are set ablaze or illegally dumped in valleys. Next, deep holes are dug for explosives. Accessing these Appalachian coal seams can require the removal of 600 feet or more of the mountainside. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives. Huge machines called draglines, which stand 22 stories high, push the blown apart rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys. Waterways are contaminated and sometimes buried altogether.
In the past few decades, over 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters that provide drinking water for millions of Americans have been permanently buried and destroyed. Residents of the areas affected by mountaintop removal will often turn their faucets on and find dirty brown water coming out.
Local communities routinely face devastating floods and adverse health effects. The floods are caused by the level landscape. Where trees and rocks once absorbed and diverted rainwater, now flat lands rush the waters downhill towards residential areas. There is also ample evidence of harmful health effects on the people near these coal mines. “Since 2007, peer-reviewed studies by researchers from more than a dozen universities have concluded that mountaintop removal coal mining contributes to significantly higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among individuals living in the region where it occurs” (http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/health-impacts/). Additionally in 2014, “researchers demonstrated that toxic dust from mountaintop removal promotes the growth of lung cancer cells in people living nearby”. This is the first time a direct link has been established rather than a correlation.
The naturally biodiverse habitats in some the country’s oldest forests have been laid to waste due to this practice. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency impact statement on mountaintop removal in Appalachia, “it may take hundreds of years for a forest to re-establish on the mine site.” Many bird species native to Appalachia will no longer be able to inhabit the region due to the lack of mature forests. The fish, which serve as living indicators of water quality, have experienced “habitat degradation, declining populations, and increasing cases of developmental abnormalities in waters downstream of mountaintop removal sites” (http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/ecology/). What was once a lush and moist environment ideal for native salamander populations has now been turned into a dry environment uninhabitable by amphibians (who need clean water to survive). The native salamander populations have been found either completely absent or significantly reduced in number, sometimes even replaced by reptiles on reclaimed mine sites who can survive in these drier areas.
Although reclamation efforts of these areas are required by federal law, coal companies often receive waivers from state agencies under the guise that economic development will occur on the newly flattened land. However, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, and less than 3% of reclaimed mountaintop removal sites are used for economic development.
For several years, the organization Appalachian Voices and their partners pushed for passage of the Clean Water Protection Act, which would have provided a solution to the harmful effects of mountaintop removal. More than 200 congressional allies supported the effort, but it was ultimately unsuccessful due to industry lobbying. Numerous agencies and advocacy groups continue to work in the federal courts to bring the protections of the Clean Water Act to the people, ecological communities, and waters of Appalachia.
For more information:
NPR Podcast: “You Just Don’t Touch That Tap Water Unless Absolutely Necessary” https://www.npr.org/2018/10/03/649850498/you-just-don-t-touch-that-tap-water-unless-absolutely-necessary
PBS News Hour: How mountaintop mining affects life and landscape in West Virginia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkDQ_UbqbG4