Mountaintop Removal 101

What is Mountaintop Removal?

Mountaintop removal is any method of surface coal mining that removes a mountaintop or ridgeline, whether or not the mined area will be returned to its approximate original contour. Methods of mountaintop removal coal mining include, but are not limited to: cross-ridge mining, box-cut method mining, steep slope mining, area mining or mountaintop mining.

THE PROCESS OF MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL COAL MINING

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CLEARING — Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not used commercially, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills.

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BLASTING — Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 600 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives. Every week, the explosive equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb is detonated in Appalachia.

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DIGGING — Coal and debris are removed using enormous earth-moving machines known as draglines, which stand 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars their buckets. These machines can cost up to $100 million, but are favored by coal companies because they displace the need for hundreds of jobs.

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DUMPING WASTE — The debris, called “overburden” or “spoil,” is dumped into nearby valleys. These “valley fills” have buried and polluted nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams. In 2002, the Bush Administration changed the definition of “fill material” in the Clean Water Act to include toxic mining waste, which allowed coal companies to legally create valley fills.

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PROCESSING — Coal must be washed and treated before it is shipped to power plants for burning. This processing creates coal slurry or sludge, a mix of water, coal dust and clay containing toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium. The coal sludge is often contained in open impoundments, sometimes built with mining debris, making them very unstable.

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RECLAMATION — While reclamation efforts are required by federal law, coal companies often receive waivers from state agencies with the idea that economic development will occur on the land. In reality, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, and less than three percent of reclaimed mountaintop removal sites are used for economic development. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency impact statement on mountaintop removal in Appalachia, it may take hundred of years for a forest to re-establish itself on the mine site.

Where is Mountaintop Removal Happening?

Mountaintop removal takes place primarily in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwest Virginia, and East Tennessee.

Appalachian Voices commissioned a study showing that nearly 1.2 million acres of land has been surface mined for coal and more than 500 mountains have been severely impacted or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. In some counties, such as Wise County, Va., surface mining has impacted nearly 40 percent of the land area.

 

Mountaintop removal mining impact study results by state:
Kentucky 574,000 acres 293 mountains
Tennessee 78,000 acres 6 mountains
Virginia 156,000 acres 67 mountains
West Virginia 352,000 acres 135 mountains
TOTAL 1,160,000 acres 501 mountains

 

Where is Mountaintop Removal Coal Consumed?

Most mountaintop removal coal is burned in power plants in the eastern United States and in some midwestern states. As of 2008, North Carolina and Georgia were the top two consumers of mountaintop removal. While the rest of the country may not be burning mountaintop removal coal, many companies providing coal to these power plants do engage in mountaintop removal mining. We created the My Connection tool on iLoveMountains.org to allow individuals to type in their zip code to see if mountaintop removal coal is being burned to provide their electricity.

What Can Be Done to End Mountaintop Removal Mining?

In 2002, changes to the Clean Water Act by the George W. Bush administration provided created a loophole to allow coal companies to dump mining waste into our nation’s waterways, paving the way for mountaintop removal mining to flourish. The Clean Water Protection Act in the House of Representatives would provide a long-term legislative fix that would be difficult for any presidential administration to change.

What Agencies are Involved in Regulating Mountaintop Removal?

The permitting of mountaintop removal mining takes place in a complex regulatory framework that spans federal, state and local government agencies and differs by state.

The Obama administration has worked to enhance coordination between the different federal agencies that regulate mountaintop removal. In the summer of 2009, the administration released an interagency “Memorandum of Understanding,” outlining short- and long-term goals for lessening the impacts of mountaintop removal.

The agencies involved are the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Don’t We Need Mountaintop Removal Coal for the Nation’s Energy Needs?

Mountaintop removal mining provides less then 4.5 percent of our electricity. Preliminary data from 2009 indicates that percentage is dropping.

It is impossible to come up with an exact figure for precisely how much of our electricity comes from mountaintop removal, as the statistic is not kept by any federal agency, and the number is continually fluctuating. However, we can establish a rough estimate through the following conservative assumptions.

  1. Coal provides now less than half of the nation’s electricity. (EIA)
    Coal produced 44.7 percent of our electricity between January and July of 2009. We rounded up to 45 percent.
  2. Central Appalachia provides 20 percent of the nation’s coal, thus producing 9 percent of our electricity. (EIA)
    Central Appalachia provided roughly 20 percent of the nations coal in 2008 (that percentage is falling due to decreasing production). If coal provides 45% of our electricity, 20 percent being central Appalachian coal, central Appalachian coal therefore provides 9 percent of our electricity.
  3. 50 percent of Central Appalachian coal is strip-mined, thus providing 4.5 percent of our electricity.
    About 48 percent of central Appalachian coal was surface mined in 2008. We rounded up that number to 50 percent. (EIA)
  4. 100 percent of strip-mined coal in central Appalachia is mountaintop removal.
    Randy Huffman, chairman of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection who has defended mountaintop removal in the past, stated that 95 percent of strip-mined coal in West Virginia is mined by mountaintop removal in testimony before the U.S. Senate in the summer of 2009. We’ve rounded up to say 100 percent of that central Appalachian coal is mountaintop removal.

An approximate but conservative estimate follows: coal provides 45 percent of our electricity. 20 percent of total coal used for electricity is mined in Central Appalachia, providing 9% of our electricity. 50 percent of central Appalachian coal is from strip-mining, 100 percent of which is mountaintop removal. Therefore mountaintop removal coal provides, at most, 4.5 percent of our country’s electricity.