Mountaintop Mining Raises Debate in Coal Country

Lori Valigra
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2006
The practice of removing mountaintops to mine coal is polarizing opinion
in Appalachia.

Some say the method creates flat land needed to expand towns, while others argue it's ugly and damages the environment.

The recent Sago mine accident in West Virginia has stoked debate over whether mining coal to fuel power plants (read an excerpt of National Geographic magazine's "Future Power") is best done deep underground or on mountaintops and other areas closer to the surface.

"After the Sago mine explosion, some people said, Why not do more surface mining because it's safer?" said geologist Alan Stagg.

"But other people say it's bad for the environment, and the look of the mountains shouldn't be changed," said Stagg, who is also president of Stagg Resource Consultants, a Charleston, West Virginia, consulting firm to the coal-mining industry.

Mountaintop removal (MTR) became widespread during the 1980s. It is a surface-mining technique that involves blasting off several hundred feet of rock to mine coal just under the surface of a mountain peak.

After the area is mined, the mining company bulldozes and compacts the land, as required by federal law.

Economic Boom

In many Appalachian mountain towns, flat land is in short supply.

Developers and city managers say flat areas created by MTR offer a chance to expand housing and industry.

"We are geographically stuck between mountains," said Donovan Blackburn, city manager of Pikeville, an eastern Kentucky (map) town that is one of the world's largest coal producers.

"We're the economic hub for the region. To grow, sustain the lives of residents, and add infrastructure, you have to create additional landmass by going up to the mountains."

Pikeville has already benefited from another type of land removal that didn't involve mining.

The Pikeville Cut-Through—started in 1974 and completed in 1988—rerouted a river that had been flooding the town and also created space to build a medical school, banks, and a park.

"We have a regional hospital on that land, so people don't have to drive two to three hours," Blackburn said.

MTR will add about another 800 acres (396 hectares) of flat land to the city.

Currently the Central Appalachian Mining Company is mining peaks owned by the city's airport board.

Blackburn points to other MTR sites in the area that have been redeveloped. The Federal Bureau of Prisons built a high-security penitentiary on a reclaimed site in Inez, Kentucky.

Housing developments and car lots have also been built in nearby Hazard, and a golf course sits atop a former mine in Prestonsburg.

Coal is also easier to access with MTR, so more coal can be mined, proponents say.

"With surface mining, you can recover up to 90 percent of the coal in the ground," Stagg, the West Virginia mining consultant, said.

That's almost double the amount from a typical underground mine.

Appalachia is a national mining center in the U.S., boasting 1,193 mines. Of those, 530 are underground and 663 are on the surface, including MTR mines, according to the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration.

According to the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, about 7 percent of mountaintops and ridges will be mined in the Appalachian coal basin with MTR mining.

Harm to the Environment

Although some communities are finding uses for the newly flattened land, MTR has many opponents.

Lenny Kohm, campaign director for the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices in Boone, North Carolina, says the practice is dangerous to local residents.

He points to rock debris and so-called impoundments, or walled-off areas that hold the water used in the coal-mining process.

Sometimes the impoundments give way, causing flooding, he says.

"The impoundments are a tragedy waiting to happen," Kohm said. "MTR transfers the risk from the miners to the general population that lives near the impoundments."

Environmentalists and others who oppose MTR have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that issues permits under the federal Clean Water Act, Stagg says.

Stagg notes several other points of contention about the practice.

Mined rocks, known as overburden, are removed from the site and used to fill the heads of valleys. This may affect water quality and the flow of streams, in turn affecting wildlife and insects that rely on the water.

"There's also an argument that the fill adds sediment that could clog the lower reaches of the stream," Stagg said.

In addition, hardwood trees that attract migratory birds and create the unique look of Appalachia's rugged terrain are felled for mining.

"The loss of our ancestral hardwood forest is the environmental impact that bothers me the most, because the trees won't regrow on the flattened land," said Ben Stout, an ecologist at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.

"This is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world," he said. "Neotropical migratory birds come through here, and there are amphibian and insect populations that could disappear if MTR continues."

Stout, like many participants in the debate, realizes the importance of coal for power. He believes MTR could be better used if mining companies developed well-defined plans that allow for areas with preserved clean water and trees.

"I could live with MTR to some extent if some of the natural setting was preserved, if it were done in concert with development," he said.

But to date no such collaboration has been made.

From Bourbon to Wine

While MTR remains a controversial issue, there have been some successes in cultivating reclaimed land.

David Lawson saw more than coal in the reclaimed mountaintop mine on his family's property in southwestern Virginia.

Lawson, 27, planted his first acre of grape vines there before graduating high school. He now runs a winery using grapes from his own vineyard.

His company, MountainRose Vineyards of Wise, Virginia, has nine varieties of grapes growing on nine acres (almost four hectares) of vineyard, three acres (one hectare) of which are on reclaimed land. He is currently planting on another five acres (two hectares) of reclaimed land.

The grapes, he says, do well in the seemingly inhospitable soil composed of rocks, clay, sand, and loam.

"The biggest issue with reclaimed mine land is that the soil was compacted by big equipment, so we had to plow it and rip it up," he said. "And we added some lime, because the rocks are acidic."

The shale rocks proved to be an excellent growth medium for the grapes, he notes.

"We're exploring new grape varieties now," he said.

To Lawson, building a new business atop land reclaimed from the ages-old Appalachian coal business is a sort of personal mission.

"I'm a fan of mining," he said. "So I went after this reclaimed mine land to grow grapes and show what can be done on it."

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