“The mountain above me, once a thriving forest, has been blasted into a pile of rock and mud rubble. Two years ago, it was covered with rich black topsoil and abounded with hardwood trees, rhododendrons, ferns and flowers. The understory thrived with herbs such as ginseng, black cohosh, yellow root and many other medicinal plants. Black bears, deer, wild turkey, hawks, owls and thousands of [other] birds lived here. The mountain contained sparkling streams teeming with aquatic life and fish. Now it is all gone. It is all dead. I live at the bottom of a mountaintop removal coal mining operation in the Peachtree community...” - Bo Webb
This picture shows Kayoford Mountain, a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. In the foreground, one can see high walls and a massive dragline. Beyond, stretch 10,000 acres of active and reclaimed mining. Photo courtesy of I Love Mountains website.
In traditional underground coal mining (also called deep-mining), miners descend into the mountain and mine the coal from within, altering the mountain's internal geology, but leaving the surface intact. As its name suggests, mountaintop removal is a method of coal extraction in which the mountain is removed from the coal, rather than the coal from the mountain. It is a highly mechanized form of strip mining, relying on a combination of ammonium nitrate explosives and massive machinery to dismantle the mountain and extract the coal.
The process begins by clear-cutting the biodiverse hardwood forest that blankets Appalachia, preparing the mountain for blasting. With the forest gone, the topsoil and rock that sit above the mountain's coal seams, termed overburden by the industry, are blasted and scraped away to reveal the coal seams that run in horizontal layers through the mountains. Twenty-story tall dragline excavators and house-sized haul trucks push the trees and mountain's pieces into the valleys and hollows below, burrying the headwaters of major American river systems. These rubble-filled valleys are known as valley fills.
The massive machinery is then used to scrape away the coal and haul it off of the mine site to processing plants, where mountaintop removal coal is combined with deep-mined coal and washed with water and chemicals. The resultant toxic waste is mixed with more water to make slurry, which is then pumped into abandoned mines or man-made lakes held in mountain hollows behind earthen dams. Coal leaves the processing plant in trains, trucks, or barges, bound for coal-fired power plants across the nation. When mining is done, the rough contours left by the blasting and digging are leveled, and the ground is seeded with grasses, plants, and trees hardy enough to survive on the rocky surface left behind.
In addition to the permanent disfigurement of the land, each phase of mountaintop removal creates environmental hazards, all of which are acutely felt in the Coal River Valley and ripple through our broader society.
The Mountaintop Removal Process
The hardwoord forests that blanket the mountain are clearcut to prepare the mountain for blasting. Sometimes the timber is harvested, but often the trees are burned or pushed down the mountainside. Topsoil is often pushed into the valley below.
To dislodge the earth and rock above the coal seams, termed as overburden by the coal industry, ammonium nitrate explosives are detonated in holes drilled into the mountain. In addition to the soil and rocks loosened by blasting, white silica and chemical-laden dust become airborne, settling on the surrounding communities. Prolonged silica inhalation leads to silicosis.
The rubble left in the wake of the blasts is removed by 20-story tall dragline excavators and house-sized haul trucks, exposing the mountain's coal seams. Blasting and digging can remove as much as 1,400 feet of elevation from a mountain.
4) VALLEY FILLS
Haul trucks dump the rubble into the valleys below the mountain to create valley fills, which have burried over 1,900 miles of headwater streams. The denuded mountain and rubble-filled valleys increase flooding due to increased runoff during rainfall.
5) PROCESSING and RECLAMATION
After the coal has been mined, reclamation begins. Barren land is covered with plants and grass hardy enough to survive in the rocky ground left behind. In some cases, hardwood trees can take hold again, but in all instances it will take the long process of succession for native ecosystems to return.
"Don't Blow Up the Mountain" by Nell Levin, performed by the Shelby Bottom String Band. Video directed by Ron Ault, with footage from Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.
Where is it happening?
The Appalachian mountain range is the oldest range on Earth. It stretches from Newfoundland in the north to Alabama in the south and supports immense biological and cultural diversity throughout its range. In Central Appalachia, underground coal mining has been a way of life for thousands of people and their communities for over one hundred years. As a region, Central Appalachia's coalfields are the second largest U.S. producer of coal after the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Increasingly, where there is coal to be found in Appalachia, there is mountaintop removal. More than 470 mountains, across eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, throughout West Virginia and creeping into western Virginia, have been permanently altered by mountaintop removal. Today, in the Coal River Valley, coal extraction through mountaintop removal has become a fact of life. Of all the mountains that form the valley, only one remains intact - Coal River Mountain.
The Appalachian Mountains are indicated in brown in the above image.
This aerial photograph shows the massive scale of strip mining operations in the Powder River Basin, the nation's leading coal extraction region. Photo courtesy of Stop Mountaintop Removal website.
Explore this section of the website for further exploration of the process, effects, and politics of mountaintop removal.
For more information on sources used in this theme, please see the Notes on Sources page.