Leveling Appalachia

Mountaintop removal mining hits new heights in environmental destruction

Mar 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Mountains explode and disappear all the time in the Appalachians. Mountaintop removal transforms small streams into raging torrents that sweep away houses several times a year and dumps arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium into drinking water, some of which makes its way to Cincinnati.

Coal companies reap huge profits from the process, which produces less than 5 percent of the nation’s electricity but results in irreparable damage to the mountains and surrounding communities.

“With mountain removal, which is a form of strip mining, the top is removed in a way that it can never be put back on,” says Paul Ryder, Organizing Director for Ohio Citizen Action (OCA).

“What they do is they toss it into the valley — first the vegetation and trees, then the top soil, then the interior of the mountain. So the topsoil is at the bottom of this huge pile. There is no way to reclaim it.

“It so happens that all the areas where mountaintop removal is being practiced are part of the Ohio River watershed. All of the streams affected end up in the Ohio River. And people in Cincinnati drink Ohio River water, so all of the heavy metals in the mountains … end up in our bodies because we’re drinking this stuff.”

In 2008 OCA began a campaign to increase public awareness about mountaintop removal and make it a topic for discussion during the 2008 election. Canvassers went door-to-door to educate Ohioans all over the state.

“In most people’s minds this is a separate issue that has less to do with energy policy and more to do with morality or patriotism or even religion,” Ryder says. “When a lot of people hear about it, their first reaction is a religious statement: ‘God made these mountains, it’s not our place to destroy what he made.’

“I call it patriotic because people think of it in terms of the treasures that are part of our country that we’re responsible for protecting — the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, the Appalachian Mountains. If we don’t believe in protecting these things, is there anything we believe in any more? Does anything have values to us if we’re willing to sell the Appalachian Mountains?”

What OAC canvassers found was what a national survey about mountaintop removal revealed: Most Americans think it’s wrong to destroy mountains for profit, energy or any other reason.

The Opinion Research Corporation found that 65 percent opposed then-President Bush’s plan to ease environmental regulations to permit wider use of mountaintop removal coal mining in the U.S. and 71 percent said they would oppose the use of mountaintop removal coal mining for a mountain located within 50 miles of their home.

Considering the fact that most of the areas referred to as the “Appalachian coal fields” are in rural and poor areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, this mining practice has been largely ignored for years. But all that changed with the 2008 presidential election, when Sen. John McCain committed to ending the practice of mountaintop removal. Sen. Barack Obama then agreed to do the same thing.

More than 1,200 miles of streams have been buried and 470 mountaintops removed to date. Even if the mining stopped immediately, existing operations would still pose serious problems.

The processing plants at or near the mining sites clean the coal before it’s shipped and create an “impound” or pit in which to hold the slurry waste that results — water mixed with coal dust and other pollutants. This material eventually leeches into soil and groundwater supplies even if the pits don’t breach.

Appalachian Voices (www.appvoices.org) describes one such incident from Martin County, Ky.: “When the sludge dam breached, more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge (about 30 times the amount of oil released in the Exxon Valdez oil spill) poured into tributaries of the Big Sandy River, killing virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream of the spill. Martin County Coal Co., a subsidiary of A.T. Massey Coal, which was responsible for the spill, argued in court that the event was ‘an act of God.’ Yet not long after the disaster, the Kentucky Department of Surface Mining issued four citations to the company for unsafe waste storage practices and for allowing the 70-acre pond to weaken to the point of collapse.”

The organization sharply criticizes the only EPA report on mountaintop removal as inaccurate because it based findings on data obtained from coal mining companies instead of conducting independent research. Some of the information, however, was startling.

• More than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001.

• Over 1,000 miles of streams have been permitted to be buried in valley fills. (For scale, this is a greater distance than the length of the entire Ohio River.)

• If mountaintop removal continues unabated, it will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres by the end of the decade — an area the size of Delaware — with a severe impact on fish, wildlife and bird species, not to mention a devastating effect on many neighboring communities.

Mountaintop removal site maps provided by the mining companies detailing their operations for use in the EPA study were inaccurate. Appalachian Voices, using Google earth maps, provides proof that the estimate of 800 miles of mountains destroyed was grossly inaccurate.

Statistics aside, Ryder believes the wide-scale environmental damage is what will ultimately bring about an end to this practice.

“The idea behind all the environmental laws is that the problems you create on your own land don’t stay on your own land,” he says. “Soot coming out of a power plant does not stop at the fence line, it just keeps going. You’re not just hurting your own land — you’re hurting people next door, sometimes the people in the next county over.”

Ryder believes “public revulsion” over the destruction of mountains will eventually bring an end to the practice. Awareness about mountaintop removal is already growing thanks to the presidential election.

“While I hope Congress passes a ban soon — soon probably means three, four, five years off — these mountains are being chewed up as we speak, so there’s a lot of urgency to stopping it now,” he says. “We are this close to stopping it. It’s not inevitable what it will continue. It will stop if people get involved in insisting that Obama carries through what he said in the campaign.”

To learn more about MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL, visit www.ilovemountains.org; from there you can e-mail your elected representatives to support a ban on mountaintop removal.