Especially in the Appalachias, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, many mining companies use a method of mining known as "Mountain Top Removal." This form of mining uses explosives to blast up to four hundred feet off the top of the mountain, exposing the desired seams, and then the desired ores are extracted. Mountain top mining essentially removes the "peak" of the mountain, and its adjacent valleys, leaving a flat or contoured plain.

Mountain Top Removal 1
Step 1. Layers of rock and dirt above the coal (called overburden) are removed.

An article recently published in Science magazine by Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, et al., shows that this practice has devastating consequences to the environment. Although companies are required by law to provide remediation, scientists are discovering that the environmental destruction caused by mountain top removal mining is "pervasive and irreversible" and strongly recommend that an end be called to the practice immediately, before further damage is done.

Mountain top removal mining causes harm to the environment

  • The companies dump the rock they blast into neighbouring streams or valleys. The streams are completely blocked by the fill, and the area's biodiversity is completely devastated. Over seven hundred miles of streams were lost or destroyed by this kind of mining from 1985 to 2001! The streams that remain are polluted by the dumping, and may take centuries before they are returned to biological health.
  • The areas to be removed are first deforested, which means that acres of old-growth forest are destroyed in the process; although sometimes the trees are sold for lumber, in many cases they are simply burned to remove them from the area. This practice destroys completely the biodiversity that existed on the mountain top; because these mountain tops are often isolated from each other, each mountain top contains a unique mix of biological species and so that habitat, with its data and species, is probably lost forever. Old-growth forests cannot by replaced by planting new seedlings, because old trees sequester carbon faster than new growth, and seedlings cannot support the balanced ecological system that existed before.
  • Blowback from coal mining deposits deposits sulfur compounds, which destroy buildings and create health hazards (acid rain was caused by sulfur dioxide), and mercury, a proven neurotoxin, onto surrounding properties and wildlife areas.
  • Although topsoil is supposed to be set aside to be replaced, in practice, many mining companies are granted waivers and fill with topsoil substitute. This substitute has not been proven to have the benefits of the original topsoil, with its mix of soil nutrients and microbial populations. Even when the topsoil is replaced, it is unlikely that the balance of micro-organisms can ever be fully restored.
  • Pollution occurs not only in streams, but leaches into the underlying water table and aquifer systems. These systems affect hundreds of thousands of square miles of land and their ecosystems.
  • Heavy mining equipment compacts the soil, reducing the ability of plant roots to penetrate the soil. This reduction means that plants with deep roots cannot grow, and therefore microbial and underground ecosystems cannot be established.

EPA Mountain Top Removal Step 2
Step 2. The upper seams of coal are removed with spoils placed in an adjacent valley.

If this were done just once per mountaintop, that would be bad enough--but companies can repeat this process over and over on the same mountaintop, essentially reducing large portions of mountain ranges to flat plains. This destroys microclimates as well, reducing the ability of the earth, plants, people, and animals to cope with weather changes.

Mountain Top Removal Step 3

Step 3. Draglines excavate lower layers of coal with spoils placed in spoil piles.

Other damage that has been recorded includes contaminated well water, toxic dust and fish that are tainted with the chemical selenium. Many of the streams affected had toxic concentrations of selenium. The chemical, which occurs naturally in coal, leaches from coal and rocks that are dumped into the streams. Fish and birds with high levels of selenium have been found to have reproductive failures, which means that whole species may soon become completely extinct, at least in this area, permanently harming the delicate ecological balance in the area. State advisories warn people about eating too much selenium-contaminated fish.

Mountain Top Removal Step 4
Step 4. Regrading begins as coal excavation continues.

Additionally, the flattened mountain tops and blocked streams are now unable to prevent massive downstream flooding in periods of heavy rains. The practice has destroyed roughly 2,040 square miles of land in Appalachia and buried more than 2,000 miles of streams since mountain-top removal mining started in the 1960s.

Mountain Top Removal Step 5

Step 5. Once coal removal is complete, final regrading takes place and the area is revegetated.

Unfortunately, the revegetation that takes place means that the area is seeded with non-native grasses and trees, further destroying the ecological balance in the area. Mining companies argue that this process is safer for miners, and allows access to thin coal seams not suitable for underground mining, but the ecological hazards of this practice are too great to ignore. The contamination of water and food resources poses a health hazard to millions of people, in addition to the direct polluting effects on the air they breathe--which can be carried by wind to people thousands of miles away. And those polluted food resources may just be showing up on your supermarket shelf. It's time to end mountain top removal mining.

How one person can help:

  • Use compact fluorescent lighting and recycle the bulbs properly to reduce coal usage.
  • Switch to a green energy provider or a provider with a green energy plan.
  • Put appliances and lights on timers, and unplug them when you are not using them, or install multiple appliances on a power strip and flip the switch when you leave the room.
  • Call your senators and representatives and let them know how you feel about the practice. If you are in an area affected, campaign for local representatives who are against mountain top removal mining.
  • Donate, even a small amount, to an environmental non-profit agency to combat this practice.
  • If you are a photographer in the area, take pictures of the damage.
  • If you are a writer, artist, or musician, help end this form mining by creating a piece to protest.

The damage to thousands of square miles and thousands of miles of streams is already done--but that's no reason to accept any more environmental damage. We all must act to end mountain top removal mining.
Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Aug 1, 2015)
The oral histories of the people fighting to save their homes and businesses from coal mining in the Appalachias. A fascinating book and one that may make you think twice about the problem.