Written by Madeline Berry
Mountaintop Removal (MTR) is a very effective form of coal mining. Conventional coal mining involved miners tunneling underground to access and extract the coal. Since the 1970's, conventional coal mining has been eclipsed by MTR, because it allows coal companies to access coal more effectively and efficiently while reducing the overall number of employed miners.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines MTR as “a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. MTR can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at the buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in neighboring valleys” (I Love Mountains).
The MTR process includes six components. First, “clearing” must take place, which involves removing all the topsoil and vegetation from the mountain (I Love Mountains). This first step often leads to good lumber being cut down and burned because coal companies operate on quick timeframes. Second, is the “blasting” stage. Most coal seams lie deep beneath the surface, and in order to reach the coal seams, lots of explosives are needed to remove what is called “overburden” (I Love Mountains).
The third step, “digging,” removes all the coal and debris—the overburden—from the mountain (I Love Mountains). Digging requires the use of a dragline, a costly piece of heavy equipment that has the capability to move vast amounts of earth. The fourth step is “dumping of waste”. This involves discarding what coal companies refer to as “fill” (anything dug up and blasted that is not coal). Oftentimes, “fill” is dumped into nearby valleys, which has caused many streams and water sources to become buried and therefore not functional.
The fifth step is “processing” (I Love Mountains). Once the coal has been extracted from the mountain, it needs to be cleaned before being shipped to power plants. When companies wash coal, harmful byproducts containing toxic materials are produced. The coal companies put the toxic materials in impoundments for containment. Impoundments are tasked with containing lots of toxic materials and sometimes these impoundments fail. Finally, the sixth step is “reclamation.” By law, coal companies are required to reclaim the land with the hopes of vegetation returning to the mountain. However, the reality is that the mountaintop has grass seed sprayed on top, which does little to bring vegetation and wildlife back.
MTR became a popular form of coal production during the 1970's because the world was facing a petroleum crisis. People needed a cheap and more efficient form of energy, and the solution was coal; thus MTR was born. MTR was first tested in Kentucky and West Virginia, and it then moved into Virginia and Tennessee (Mitchell 2006).
According to John McQuaid, “Demand for mountaintop coal has been rising quickly, driven by high oil prices, energy-intensive lifestyles in the United States and elsewhere and hungry economies in China and India” (McQuaid 2009). Another reason that helps explain why MTR has expanded so much in recent decades is the depressing economic situation in Appalachia. In many small communities throughout the Appalachian coalfields, there are no other major industries; so, despite the destructive nature of MTR, it continues to exist due to a lack of alternatives. More recently, since cheap natural gas prices have become predominant, coal mining, including MTR forms, have decreased.
There is a common saying in Appalachia, which is “what you do to the land, you do to the people” (I Love Mountains). MTR is causing extensive and often irreversible damage to the environment and water supplies in Appalachia. The issue of MTR is not only an environmental issue but a human rights issue as well. Coal companies argue that MTR mining is cheaper than traditional mining (Yan 2010).
Rather than going underground or digging through “overburden” (soil, trees, and rocks) to access coal seams, mountaintop removal just blasts the tops off (Yan 2010). But the practice hinges on how one defines “cheap.” After considering the complete and enduring effects of this practice, many would argue that MTR is not “cheap.” “What the coal companies are doing to us and our mountains is the best kept dirty little secret in America,” according to the late MTR activist Judy Bonds (Mitchell 2006).
Recently, alarm has arisen about the impacts MTR has on the health of residents who reside in areas like Eastern Kentucky, Western West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, and Eastern Tennessee. MTR affects the air, soil, and water in Appalachia, and because of this, research is being done on how MTR affects the human health of residents in nearby communities (Boyles 2017).
Studies on individuals residing in coalfield regions show that they exhibit higher rates of cancer than individuals who do not live in coalfield regions. A study conducted in 2011 found that out of the 1.2 million people residing in counties where MTR occurs, 60,000 cancer cases could be directly linked to MTR practices (Hendryx 2011). Additionally, residents in coalfields are experiencing lower life expectancies. For example, a study published in 2011 found that out of more than 3,000 counties across the United States, the top two coal producing counties in Kentucky (Perry and Pike County) were among the bottom ten counties nationally for life expectancy between 1997 and 2007 (Kulkarni 2011).
Finally, it should come as no surprise that heavily mined areas are also the unhealthiest. In 2013, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found Kentucky and West Virginia second to last and dead last on overall health, well-being, and happiness (Appalachian Voices).
MTR has had devastating effects on the environment. According to EPA estimates, more than 2,000 miles of streams have been buried by dumping “overburden” into them (Appalachian Voices). To scale the 2,000-mile number, it is greater than the entire length of the Ohio River (I Love Mountains). The dumping of “overburden” into water sources has caused water downstream to contain high levels of heavy metals, which are dangerous for consumption by humans and wildlife.
Additionally, EPA findings indicate that 1.4 million acres of forest have been destroyed by MTR, which is equivalent in size to the state of Delaware, and 500 mountains have been leveled, the majority of those being in Kentucky (I Love Mountains). MTR practices are also destroying biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund states that Appalachia contains “one of the most diverse assemblages of plants and animals found in the world’s temperate deciduous forests,” but is also home to some of the most harmful mining practices (Appalachian Voices).
MTR leads to increased erosion and flooding, causing landslides to become more prevalent. MTR mining removes all the trees and vegetation, which during heavy rains soak up excess water. Therefore, when it rains the excess water rushes down the mountain wreaking havoc on the communities below.
Coal companies claim the increased flooding to be an “act of God” (Appalachian Voices). Mingo County in West Virginia was the latest locale of flash flooding, and residents there suffered their 19th flood in eleven years (Appalachian Voices). Dr. Jonathan Phillips, a professor at the University of Kentucky, asserts, “There is a clear risk of increased flooding (greater runoff production and less surface flow detention) following [mountaintop removal and valley fill] operations” (Appalachian Voices). There is a clear correlation between increased flooding and Appalachian mining operations.
In addition to flooding, MTR impacts local communities with injury and even death due to blasting operations, which produce “fly rock” (Appalachian Voices). When companies are blasting the tops off the mountain to access the coal seams below large boulders weighing up to a couple tons can come barreling down the mountain. This scenario played out in 2004 when a boulder weighing half a ton fell off the mountain and crushed Jeremy Davidson, a three-year-old who was fast asleep during his afternoon nap (Appalachian Voices).
Furthermore, coalfield communities must deal with toxic sludge impoundments. Coal sludge or slurry contains many toxic chemicals including arsenic, mercury, and lead to name just a few (Appalachian Voices). The coal sludge is put in impoundments, which are prone to failure. When these impoundments fail the impacts are staggering. For example, in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky, an impoundment failed and released more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge (Appalachian Voices). The Martin County spill was nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill that received so much national attention (Appalachian Voices).
In summary, MTR is affecting coalfield communities in numerous ways. In her article entitled Mountaineers Are Always Free? Joyce Barry asserts, “The disastrous effects of MTR not only alter the physical geography, but also place the people who inhabit these areas in direct jeopardy, as traditional mountain culture and ancestry are being razed along with the mountains” (Barry 2001, 123).
Ties to Philanthropic Sector
It does not matter if one is a resident of Appalachia or not, everyone is connected to MTR. Few people make the connection when they turn on a light switch that mountains in Appalachia are being destroyed. One of the major problems pertaining to MTR is that many people are unaware about where their energy comes from. If people took a trip to the coalfields of Appalachia and saw firsthand the sheer destruction of MTR, it would make people more conscious of their energy consumption.
People residing in coalfield regions could benefit greatly from philanthropy. Because MTR has many negative effects, it has the capacity to engage individuals as well as organizations with a diversity of passions ranging from the environment to public health. Currently there are a number of nonprofit organizations which formed to combat MTR, such as Coal River Mountain Watch. Additionally, there are other nonprofits such as Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth that have emerged, with missions to move Appalachia away from coal to cleaner energy sources.
Key Related Ideas
- Renewable Energy, also referred to as alternative energy, is energy that originates from sources that replenish itself like the sun, wind, rivers, and hot springs (Encyclopedia Britannica). Solar and wind energy are proposed alternatives to coal in Appalachia.
- Surface Mining is a mineral extraction method. Surface mining can be broken down into three main types including open-pit mining, strip mining, and quarrying (Encyclopedia Britannica).
- Judy Bonds (1952-2011) devoted the latter portion of her life to grassroots MTR efforts. The event that prompted her into action was watching her grandson stand in a stream holding dead fish and asking her “what is wrong with all the fish?” In 2003, she was the Goldman Prize Recipient for North America. Judy passed away in January 2011 after battling cancer, which many speculate was caused by living in the coalfields. Judy’s bio can be found at www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/julia-bonds/.
- Maria Gunnoe (1968-current) became a MTR activist after her home flooded seven times; something that never occurred before the mining company moved in. She began volunteering her time with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in 2004. Since becoming an MTR activist, she has been featured in numerous articles and documentaries, and like Judy Bonds, Maria was the 2009 Goldman Prize Recipient for North America. Maria’s bio can be found at www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/maria-gunnoe/.
- Robert Kennedy, Jr (1954-current) is the son of Bobby Kennedy. He is an environmental activist, but an attorney by trade who has pledged his support to the fight against MTR. In 2011, he was featured in the documentary The Last Mountain, which highlights the negative impacts that MTR has on the communities, environment and people of Appalachia (Kearney 2011).
Related Nonprofit Organizations and Websites
- Appalachian Voices: Appalachian Voices is focused on shifting from coal, to wind and solar. The nonprofit is passionate about creating a sustainable future for Appalachia and the sustainability theme is seen in all their projects. Appalachian Voices vision states, “We envision a day when the integrity of the land, air and water of central and southern Appalachia is protected for future generations and the region is upheld as a national model of a vibrant, just and sustainable economy” (appvoices.org).
- Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW): CRMW is a nonprofit that was formed in 1998 because people were concerned about the effects that MTR had on the environment and the people residing in coal regions, specifically Southern West Virginia. CRMW combines local and professional knowledge to fight for local communities’ interests. Their mission statement is as follows: “to stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area and to help rebuild sustainable communities” (crmw.net).
- Ilovemountains.org: Ilovemountains.org is a great resource to answer any question pertaining to MTR. The link below shows the impact that MTR has on Appalachian economies, human health, life expectancy, and overall well-being (ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost).
- Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC): KFTC is a grassroots organization with more than 10,000 members throughout the state of Kentucky. Their work is focused on creating a new energy future for Kentucky; energy that is clean, provides jobs, and creates healthier communities. Their mission statement is as follows, “Kentuckians For The Commonwealth is a statewide citizens' organization working for a new balance of power and a just society” (www.kftc.org).
- Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC): Formed in 1987 and located in Huntington, West Virginia, the OVEC is focused on grassroots collective action. OVEC works to improve the environment through education, grassroots organizing, preservation and coalition building (hvec.org).
- Which of the three negative impacts do you find to be the most concerning? Why do you find that impact to be the most concerning? What are some ideas on how to go about reducing the negative impacts of MTR?
- Even if you do not live in the Appalachian Region, what are some ways or ideas about how you can help in ending MTR?
- If this is an issue that you knew nothing about previously, what are some ways that you can help spread awareness of MTR?
- Appalachian Voices. Community Impacts of Mountaintop Removal. http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/community/
- Barry, Joyce. “Mountaineers Are Always Free?: An Examination of the Effects of Mountaintop Removal in West Virginia.” Women's Studies Quarterly 29, no. 1/2 (2001): 116-30.
- Boyles, Abee L., Blain, Robyn B., Rochester, Johanna R., Avanasi, Raghavendhran, Goldhaber, Susan B., McComb, Sofie, and Thayer, Kristina A. Systemic Revew of Community Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining. Environmental International (2017): 107; 163-172.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Surface Mining. https://www.britannica.com/technology/surface-mining
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Renewable Energy. https://www.britannica.com/science/renewable-energy
- Goldman Prize. Julia Bonds. http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/julia-bonds/
- Goldman Prize. Maria Gunnoe. http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/maria-gunnoe/
- Hendryx, Michael S., Leah Wolfe, Juhua Luo and B.H. Webb. “Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia With and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining,” Journal of Community Health (2011): 17, 320-327.
- I Love Mountains. The Human Cost of Coal. http://ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost
- I Love Mountains. What is Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining? http://ilovemountains.org/resources
- Kearney, Christine. “Bobby Kennedy Jr. Battles Big Coal in US Documentary.” Reuters, June 6, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/film-thelastmountain/bobby-kennedy-jr-battles-big-coal-in-us-documentary-idUSN0222286420110606
- Kulkarni, SC., A. Levin-Rector, M. Ezzati and C. Murray. Fall Behind: Life Expectancy in US Counties from 2000 to 2007 In An International Context. Population Health Metrics, 2011. 9: 16.
- McQuaid, John. “Mining the Mountains.” Smithsonian, January 2009. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mining-the-mountains-130454620/
- Mitchell, John G. “Mining the Summits.” National Geographic, March 2006. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2006/03/mountain-mining/mitchell-text
- Yan, Sophia. “In West Virginia, A Battle Over Mountaintop Mining.” Time, March 12, 2010. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1971709,00.html
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.