Producing Annihilation: Effects of Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

Along the backbone of the eastern United States, better known as Appalachia, a relatively new trend in coal mining is underway. Mountaintop removal (MTR), a process in which the coal industry blows the tops of mountains into an environmental and socio-economic ruin, has been plaguing Appalachia for decades. More recently, such industry giants as Peabody Coal Co., Horizon Resources LLC, and Arch Coal Inc. have taken advantage of coal mining legislation to advance the scope of coal extraction through MTR.

Blowing the Cover

Fifty percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal. The U.S. is responsible for burning over a billion tons of coal per year, resulting in 2.3 billion tons—and climbing—of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere annually. The burning of coal is also the leading source of mercury and sulfur dioxide that is tainting the planet’s freshwaters.

Precipitated by the petroleum crises in the 1970s, coal mining became the solution to an impending energy shortage. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enabled to ensure regulation over the environmental effects of coal mining. Section 515(c)(1) allowed for coal mining operations to practice mountaintop removal. It purported to show MTR as more efficient than other methods of removal due to coal’s horizontal position located within the lifted terrain. This piece of legislature is shameful. MTR may be more efficient for the transformation of mountains into subsidized energy, but it is also extraordinarily efficient at exacerbating drought conditions in a region that is already affected by the desiccation of local watersheds, among other problems.

When the Bush administration proposed lowering emissions standards, they embraced the coal industry as the model. With central Appalachia the top coal supplier in the country, next to Wyoming’s Powder Basin, the floodgates opened. Central Appalachia has been inundated with excavation expansion. The practice of strip mining (removing a strip of earth along the contour of a mountainside) is being replaced at an escalating rate by MTR. For example, Arch Coal digs up 100 million tons of coal per year, approximately half of which is obtained through MTR in the Appalachian region.

Despite the recent presidential transition, nothing much has changed. While on the campaign trail, the Obama team received $240,000 from the "clean coal" lobby—chump change indeed, but dirty money is dirty money. Moreover, President Obama appears supportive of the industry, speaking to a rally in Virginia: "We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years; you can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine…in the United States of America and make it work."

Most importantly, last May, Obama quietly gave thumbs up to two dozen more mountaintop removals and permits are still being handed out.

An Assault on Life

Despite legislative rhetoric, MTR is by no means quick and clean. The first step in the procedure is to prime for excavation, denuding the land of what is dubbed as "overburden." To do so, the allotted area is logged—clearcut (in most cases the lumber is sold to timber companies)—and the topsoil is removed and set aside. For the many beings that abound on, around, and in Appalachia’s mountains, the leonine roar of dragline excavators is an ominous portent of the ensuing blasting and widespread loss of life. The next step entails the application of an ammonium nitrate mixture to blast away the subsoil, exposing the dormant seams of coal. Because coal is found in lateral layers of subsoil, the debris is pushed aside and the coal excavated.

After the coal is brought to the plant for processing, the remaining toxic sludge, known as coal slurry, is deposited into designated slurry pools and left to stagnate, creating infecund, fetid pools that pose serious health threats to the surrounding communities of people, trees, animals, and watersheds.

West Virginia school 400 feet below a dam leaking toxic sludgephoto by Benji Burrell

With all of the noxious substances tainting the region’s land, children are often victims of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath—symptoms pertinent to blue baby syndrome. The long-term effects can be terminal and include cancers of the digestive tract, bone damage, and liver failure. To paraphrase author and professor at the University of Kentucky Erik Reese, the above symptoms are common ailments attributed to the exposure of heavy metals found in leachate. In 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky, such symptoms could be related to an event in which 300 million gallons of coal-slurry spilt when a holding pool collapsed. Today, there is another slurry pool containing billions of gallons of noxious sludge nestled less than a mile from the March Fork Elementary School.

Judy Bonds, a West Virginian coal activist and co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), lamented the fact that her grandson could only play in streams littered with the corpses of fish and that he suffered from asthma from the coal dust that accumulated in their home. Ultimately, Bonds became active because she was tired of witnessing the abuses that the coal industry inflicts on children in the area and watching the land become toxic with coal slurry.

Bonds explained that many of the nonhuman animals of the area are being threatened. Leaf shredders and mayflies, both vital in maintaining the health of the riparian ecology, are vanishing quickly. Forests containing more than 50 plant and animal species, are being driven to the point of extinction. Currently, two-thirds of the songbirds endemic to Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau are in decline—a direct result of big boys playing with big explosives. The EPA estimates that 7 percent (320,000 acres) of the forests and watersheds have been lost so far and, if continued at its current rate, 1.4 million acres (larger than the state of Delaware) will be vanquished within a few years.

When the top of a mountain is defoliated of its "cover" and then blown into smithereens, most of the debris is scattered into the valleys below and into headwaters and streams. Since the onslaught of MTR mining throughout the region, 750 miles of streams have been completely buried beneath debris, suffocating nearly all macroinvertebrates (insects, mollusks, snails, worms) in the headwaters, deeply scarring the web of life.

Between 1985 and 2001, there have been 6,700 valley fills. That equates to 84,000 acres of forest and watershed destroyed and/or defiled from the dumping of sedimentation. Valley-fills create floodplains, leading to flooding in an area that wasn’t naturally subjected to flooding in the past. Combined with heavy metal leachate from the mine sites, this all conduces to a dying ecology and a toxic landbase.

Every time there is a spill or flood, cleanup comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets. In late 2008, there was the Kingston spill that dumped 1.6 billion gallons of heavy-metal-laden coal ash over 400 acres, which the EPA called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Around the same time there was also an intentional release of pernicious substances and heavy metals into the Ocoee River in Tennessee.

As Bonds describes the situation: "We’re seeing the destruction of entire watersheds and it all runs downhill. Close to where I lived, the Little March Fork was poisoned and that flowed into the larger March Fork stream and then into the Coal River. The Coal River empties into the Kanawha River and into the Ohio River; then into the Mississippi River, which empties into the ocean. The poisons that flow into the ocean get into the atmosphere and fall back on the region through rainfall. So far 1,200 miles of streams and headwaters have been destroyed. The watershed and stream systems are extremely sensitive. If nothing is done to stop this, we’re looking at least double that damage in the near future."

The coal industry is not just culpable for poor environmental policy, but their policies and exploits are wreaking havoc on the people of the region as well. Eighty percent of the harvested coal is shipped outside of the area, mainly to Texas—the largest coal-consuming state in the U.S. One might suppose that the export would generate wealth for Appalachia. But it doesn’t. Big Coal collects all the remuneration. As profits go into the shareholders’ pockets, over 50 percent of the central Appalachian region live in poverty.

According to the article "Moving Mountains" by Reese in the February 2006 issue of the environmental magazine Orion, in the year 2000 seven floods affected the town of Bob White, West Virginia after mountaintop removal began in the surrounding mountains of the Cherry Pond Range. The recurring floods have been antecedent to evacuations and displacement.

Meanwhile, when not inundated, drought continues to plague the surrounding regions of Appalachia even as the bottled-water industry persists in extracting copious amounts of groundwater faster than can be replaced by the hydrologic cycle. Bottled water is then sold to exploited miners.

Production as Annihilation

Throughout Appalachia, entire mountain communities proliferate with soils, rocks, lichens, and moss that foster the streams along their maturity into specific waterways, ultimately into the Atlantic and then into the atmosphere to be precipitated down to recommence the latter cycle. All of this is silenced in this culture. How could we tolerate the loss of mountains and their forest chains and watersheds?

Coal mining, especially mountaintop removal, is unethical and inhumane. It displays stark irresponsibility in land stewardship as well as depraved practices within a diverse region. It is time to shake off the flawed belief that we are reliant upon coal and other fossil fuels—or better yet, that we are reliant upon industrial-scale production and contemporary market economics in order to live. Renewable energy, in tandem with fundamental lifestyle changes and communion with our natural environments, are the promising candidates to swap out the archaic coal and its laggard environmental-socioeconomic industry. Let’s put a stop to the systematic dismantling of Appalachia’s ecological infrastructure. And continue from there.


Frank Joseph Smecker’s work has appeared in the Ecologist, Counterpunch, TruthOut, Order of the Earth, Toward Freedom, Dissident Voice, and other publications. He is also a blogger for the Vermont Commons Journal.