By Brian Sewell
Data reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in July shows a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states.
According to the agency, production from mountaintop removal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia fell 62 percent between 2008 and 2014, while surface coal mining production nationwide decreased by 21 percent over the same period.
Analysts say this recent data reinforces national trends depressing demand for coal and expanding the roles of natural gas and renewable energy. But environmental groups caution that the figures may be misleading and raise questions about what constitutes “mountaintop removal.”
“The amount of coal being mined doesn’t convey the extent of surface mining’s environmental or human health impacts,” Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay says. “Mine location, blasting extent, and water quality problems are much more important indicators of the damage done to communities.”
Several factors make singling out mountaintop removal production difficult. The EIA pointed out in its report that a variety of other surface mining techniques can be performed on sites where mountaintop removal is also used. Also, mines that Appalachian residents and environmental groups refer to as mountaintop removal are sometimes not considered as such under the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.
Mines that span the “upper fraction of a mountain” or cross a ridgeline and are exempt from returning the land to its “approximate original contour” are generally considered by state and federal regulators to be mountaintop removal operations. But other surface mines that clearcut forests, blast away ridgelines and dump waste into adjacent valleys are not.
In recent years, this nuance has allowed Appalachian coal companies to dispute their reputation for using mountaintop removal. Alpha Natural Resources, for example, has active surface mines in West Virginia and Virginia, and is currently seeking a permit for an 847-acre surface mine in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. But the company claims it has not used mountaintop removal since the end of 2013 and has no plans to this year.