The scourge of mountaintop removal

by Michael Hendryx

Above (Issue I/2019)

Whoever drives through the east of the United States, passing through Pennsylvania or Virginia for example, is bound to meet the Appalachians. Among the world's oldest mountains, they are cloaked in deciduous forest, and number among the planets most bio-diverse areas. Here we can travel for miles, gazing out across tree-covered hilltops, undulating likes waves into the horizon. And so it is with shock and dismay that we take a bend and are greeted by a blasted moonscape, gray, naked and flat. We see a mountain stream the color of rust orange, or cloudy white, or black with slurry. Then comes the next decimated mountain, then the next.
Mountaintop removal mining, as the name suggests, involves the destruction of these ancient mountains to reach buried coal seams. The action takes places on the tops and ridges of the mountains, while the people live in the valleys directly below.  First forests are cleared, burning or dumping the debris into the valleys, and explosives are used and massive machinery to remove rock and soil to reach the coal.  Up to 250 meters of mountain elevation may be removed at a single site. Tons of explosives are detonated every day above the heads of the local people.  More than 500 mountains have been destroyed, and others are at risk.  Over 3,000 kilometers of mountain streams have been permanently buried by mining debris.  This type of mining happens in four states in the Central Appalachians, spanning approximately 5 million hectares.

Mountaintop removal has afflicted Appalachia since the 1970s, but it only became widespread beginning in the 1990s. Sometimes the coal seams in these mountains are too thin, or located in terrain that is too steep, to be mined using more conventional methods. This form of mining became popular as mining technology developed, and because these mountains have low sulfur coal, which is better to reduce acid rain from coal power plants. This form of mining is also favoured by mining companies because the explosives and the machinery do the work of many men, meaning they slash labour costs. A side effect of mechanization and environmental destruction is that the Central Appalachians have some of the worse economic conditions in the nation.

Many people who live near the mining sites decry the loss of the forests and the destruction of their homeland.  They witness first hand the polluted streams running from the mining sites. They wipe coal dust from their windows, breathe the polluted air, and worry about their loved ones' health. My colleagues and I researched the impacts over the last 12 years and found that those living near mines, have higher rates of cancer as well as respiratory, and cardiovascular disease, compared to other non-mining Appalachian communities. Rates of birth defects in newborns are higher.  Environmental studies also highlight water and air. Additionally, our analysis shows that the costs of premature death far outweigh the economic benefits that the mining industry brings to the region.

Environmental groups in Appalachia have tried to halt mountaintop removal. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress, so far unsuccessfully, to abandon it.  Some banks, including those in Germany, have stopped investing in it.  Legal challenges to mining sites have been raised because of its environmental footprint.  But, so far, it continues unabated. 

However, it is in decline, partly as a response to the protests but mostly for economic reasons.  The fact is: recoverable reserves are being depleted and coal is losing ground to other energy forms in the economic marketplace.  Its demise is only a matter of time, although its adverse environmental and public health legacy will continue for decades.

Currently in the United States, there has been talk about returning coal to its former glory days. Talk swirls about abandoning the Paris Agreement and turning our back on the fight against climate change.  We need a rethink:  Mountaintop mining contributes to climate change through deforestation and coal combustion.  We must implement energy alternatives, and we must reduce energy use, or in the future we may not be here to hike among the remaining mountains.

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