for National Geographic News
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.
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."
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