The Legacy of Mountain Top Removal

Jun 3, 2015

Credit Photo by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices.

The decline of coal mining is a blessing to some and a curse to others. And when it comes to what’s known as ‘mountain top removal’ the disagreement runs even deeper. Appalachia is ground zero for this form of surface coal mining. And while it’s only a small percentage of all coal mining, opponents are calling for it to stop.

“Appalachia has so much potential, but we can’t realize that potential if we continue to poison our water and destroy our mountains."

This short video produced by the environmental advocacy group, Appalachian Voices, frames the issue with vivid, time-lapse drone footage of mountain top removal coal mining and the voices of local citizens who live near the mines.

"They blow of the top of the mountain, actually they blow it to smithereens and then they take everything that they have blown up and then dump it into the valley below."

The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to prohibit this controversial valley fill by denying the companies permits. That’s according to Thom Kay, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices.

"What that means for us is the EPA has the ability to say no to pretty much any large new mountaintop removal mine.  They can stop it in its tracks during the permitting process. Unfortunately, they haven’t been doing that," says Kay.

Coal advocates say permits for mountain top removal require companies to restore the blast sites.  President of the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, Harry Childress says the flattened mountain tops can be put to productive use in a region where level land is scarce.

"I’ve heard figures in a couple counties, probably like Wise and Dickenson County combined, that 7,000  acres of hay land and pasture have been created by surface mining and this wouldn’t have been done, couldn’t afforded to have been done," says Childress.

The Lonesome Pine Airport sits on a former mountaintop removal site. And Childress argues, this kind of mining can spur economic development in the region, making way for parks, shopping malls and the like.

"If we want to put something like that in, we have mountains to move and you can’t afford possibly to move that mountain.    The way that gets done is by mining that area, recovering the minerals, and then reclaiming it to a post mining land use that’s approved when your permit is approved," says Childress.

"There are certainly cases where companies have done a really thorough job of reclamation, they’ve done their best and they have tried to bring back some life to an area that they have already destroyed.  But they don’t always do that, they often leave these mines sitting for years and years and years.  Hobet Mine in West Virginia has been there for a decade they've been mining that area, and it still looks terrible and it’s so massive but as long as they're mining on one part of it, they can leave the rest to be ust a moonscape. And a lot of the time they just fail to ever do a good job," says Thom Kay.

How do you transition away from coal in a way that’s both respectful to the men that have made this their life’s work, but also without denying that there’s some problems?

Coal accounts for about 39%  of the country’s electricity and a good percentage of the jobs in Appalachia’s coal mining regions. But mountaintop removal mining evokes the strongest negative outcry by environmental and community advocates.  They worry many people think this sort of mining is no longer being done. Even though the practice has declined in recent years, Appalachia is one of the few places it still is.

To see the video on mountain top removal made by award winning videographer, Trip Jennings, produced in partnership with Appalachian Voices and support from Patagonia click here.