Community Impacts of Mountaintop Removal

A community in Wise County, Virginia sits at the base of a mountaintop removal coal mine. Photo by Jamie GoodmanAppalachian communities are a source of an invaluable, rich, and unique cultural heritage. Unfortunately, mountaintop removal mining forces local residents to contend with contaminated drinking water, forceful blasting, increased flooding and unsafe sludge and slurry impoundments. Local residents find little recourse due to ineffective regulations and government agencies. Areas where mountaintop removal occur experience high attrition rates turning communities into ghost towns. The controversy of mountaintop removal has also created tensions in communities, turning neighbor against neighbor.

Impact to General Health

Heavily strip-mined communities in Appalachia are among the unhealthiest in the United States. In 2008, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index ranked Kentucky and West Virginia—the two states where mountaintop removal is most prevalent—second to last and dead last respectively. also rank at the bottom of the index. Ranking by congressional districts show similar results-out of 435 counties, WV-03 and KY-05, where the practice mountaintop removal is most pervasive, ranks 432 and 435 ranks last, respectively.

A study in 2009 by Dr. Michael Hendryx and Dr. Melissa Ahern, “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost,” found:

Increased rates of mortality and morbidity in Appalachia due to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Compared to other regions of Appalachia and the nation, coal-mining areas had the highest mortality rates for every year from 1979-2005. The highest mortality rates are in areas with the highest levels of mining.

The study also notes “elevated mortality occurs in both males and females, suggesting that the effects were not due to occupational exposure, as almost all coal miners are men.”

Contaminated Drinking Water

Contaminated Water from the town of Stephens, Wise County Va.

Contaminated water from the town of Stephens, Wise County Va.

Communities near mountaintop removal sites frequently experience contamination of their drinking water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that iron and manganese concentrations surpass drinking water guidelines in at least 40% of wells in the Appalachian Plateau, and in about 70% of the wells near reclaimed surface coal mines of the region.

In a 2003 Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the EPA reports that “stream chemistry monitoring efforts show significant increases in conductivity, hardness, sulfate, and selenium concentrations downstream of [mountaintop removal] operations.” These contaminated headwaters are the origin of drinking water resources for millions of people in major downstream American cities.

Coal slurry, a byproduct of washing and processing coal with water and chemicals, is highly toxic and can leach into groundwater supplies. Up to sixty different chemicals are used to wash coal, not to mention the heavy metals naturally present in the coal.

In Prenter Hollow, West Virginia, over 300 residents are suing nine coal companies for water contamination from coal slurry injected in abandoned underground mine shafts. Residents believe that the contaminated water is causing major health issues sometimes causing deaths.

The New York Times ran an article about Clean Water Act violations that highlighted the town of Prenter:

Medical professionals in the area say residents show unusually high rates of health problems. A survey of more than 100 residents conducted by a nurse hired by Mrs. Hall-Massey’s lawyer indicated that as many as 30 percent of people in this area have had their gallbladders removed, and as many as half the residents have significant tooth enamel damage, chronic stomach problems and other illnesses. That research was confirmed through interviews with residents.

Clean water is a commodity to which all Americans should have access, and Appalachian coal mining communities are constantly denied this precious resource.

A House Damaged by a Boulder in Floyd County, KY

A House Damaged by a Boulder
in Floyd County, KY

Blasting and Flyrock

The forceful blasting required by mountaintop removal often occurs close to residential dwellings at all times of the day. Communities are blanketed in dust and rocks of all sizes, known as flyrock, which can be the size of large boulders. Water wells and building foundations are commonly cracked, significantly depreciating the value of resident’s homes, which is oftentimes a family’s most substantial asset.

Deaths and direct damage can sometimes occur with fly rock. Late one evening, on August 20, 2004, a bulldozer pushed a boulder weighing half a ton from a mountaintop removal site in Appalachia, Virginia. The boulder crashed into the side of a residence, crushing 3 year-old Jeremy Davidson in his sleep.


Flooding in West Virginia exacerbated by mountaintop removal mines

Flooding in West Virginia exacerbated by mountaintop removal mines

Communities near mountaintop removal mining sites are often subject to powerful flash floods. Without trees on steep mountain and valley fill slopes, rainfall quickly becomes dangerous.

Some of the most recent flash-flooding occurred in Mingo County in southern West Virginia in May 2009. This was the 19th flood in 11 years to hit Mingo County and surrounding areas of southern West Virginia’s coalfields.

Massey Energy has mountaintop mines along about five miles of Gilbert Creek. Mounts’ daughter believes her damage, on Pickering Creek, came from runoff from Massey’s Frasure Creek mine, which had begun work in her area. Across from Mounts’own home, a narrow gully turned into a roaring river for two days after the storm.

Dr. Johnathon Phillips of the University of Kentucky notes: “There is a clear risk of increased flooding (greater runoff production and less surface flow detention) following [mountaintop removal and valley fill] operations.”

Sludge Impoundments

Coal sludge is a toxic byproduct of separating coal from rock, and is held in massive, notoriously leaky impoundments. According to the US Geologic Survey, sludge contains dangerous heavy metals including: antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chlorine, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel, selenium, arsenic and mercury.

Brushy Fork Coal Sludge Impoundment on Coal River Mountain, WV

Brushy Fork Coal Sludge Impoundment on
Coal River Mountain, WV. Photo by Kent Kessinger, flight courtesy of Southwings

If an impoundment fails, entire communities can be wiped out in a matter of minutes – buried beneath a wave of this toxic sludge. In 1972, an impoundment failed in West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Hollow, killing 118 downstream residents and leaving over 4,000 homeless. According to the West Virginia Division of Culture & History, (WVDCH) a 15-20 foot wave leveled town after town, moving an estimated 7 feet per second.

In 2000, an impoundment failed in Martin County, Kentucky, spilling more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The disaster—nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill— killed virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called it the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi.

As of 2000, there were more than 500 slurry impoundments across the Appalachian coalfields.

Disregard for Safety and Health

Many mountaintop removal companies show a disturbing level of disregard for the safety and well-being of local communities. Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, West Virginia is located 400 yards downslope from Massey Energy’s enormous Shumate Impoundment, which holds 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge behind a 385-foot-high earthen dam, making it one of West Virginia’s largest impoundments.

Should the dam of the Shumate Impoundment fail, a bullhorn would sound, and Marsh Fork Elementary School’s 230 children would have less than 5 minutes to evacuate before the sludge-laden waters rise six feet. The maps above show the evacuation area below the impoundment and the approximate depth to which the toxic sludge would eventually rise – 15 feet at the school.

Brushy Fork Impoundment

The Brushy Fork Impoundment in Coal River Valley, W.Va is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, rising 954 feet and holding a remarkable 8.2 billion gallons of toxic sludge. According to owner Massey Energy’s own estimations, at least 998 people would lose their lives if the dam were to fail.  A wall of toxic sludge water 50 feet high would hit the town of Whitesville, just five miles away.

Massey Energy

Massey Energy, which owns both the Shumate and Brushy Fork Impoundments, is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia and the fourth largest coal company in the United States. The company is responsible for the failed dam in Martin County, Ky., that poured over 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into the tributaries of the Big Sandy River. Massey has paid more in fines for environmental and worker safety violations than any other coal producer in the United States.

In 2008 alone, the EPA fined the company $20 million for 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration charged the company with 1,300 safety violations in two of its underground mines, while also fining the company $2.5 million for the death of two of its workers.

Ineffective Government

Few industries other than of coal mining are willing to locate to a mined community, where foundations are cracking and the water looks like tomato soup and smells like rotten eggs. In those areas, public services become reliant on the tax revenue received from mountaintop removal—in effect, less mining means less money for these services.

As a result, opposing coal politically is extremely difficult in mining regions. And on the flip side, showing strong coal industry support can earn political candidates millions of dollars in campaign funds.

In 2002, Massey Energy was found guilt of fraud and fined $50 million by a county court system. Massey appealed to the State Supreme Court, where acting Justice Warren McGraw was considered unfriendly to the coal industry. During 2004 regional elections prior to the appeal hearing, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million of his own money to unseat McGraw, winning the election for his preferred candidate Brent Benjamin. Justice Benjamin later refused to recuse himself from overseeing the hearing, in spite of his connections to Blankenship and Massey Energy.

“To a child of Appalachia, to see the mountains laid waste, whether by clear-cutting or strip mining, is to witness a dagger plunged into the very bosom from which you sprang and which has sustained you.” – Pamela Meade Sargent: U.S. Magistrate Judge