Mountaintop Removal

What is Mountaintop Removal?
Mountaintop removal is just what the name suggests. Peaks are cleared of trees. Often hardwood trees are simply burned for convenience. Giant steam shovels then scrape away the topsoil. The rock beneath is blasted away until the coal is exposed. Some blasts have lopped as much as 800 feet off a mountain. Tons of rocks, debris and other waste are trucked away and dumped into valley areas. The overburden is often scraped into the adjacent drainage valleys in what is called a valley fill. Regulations dating from the Reagan administration, said that no surface mining may occur within 100 feet of a stream unless there’d be no harm to water quality or quantity. Data suggests that mountaintop mining accounts for 10% of America’s coal output providing 5% of its electricity. Mountaintop removal has become an increasingly contentious issue over the past several years, particularly in the southern United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that by the end of 2010, 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forests would have been disturbed or cleared by mountaintop removal, an area larger than Delaware.

February 2017: The U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution to block implementation of an Obama administration coal mining regulation known as the Stream Protection Rule. The rule is now dead. Coal companies will have a freer hand in dumping mining debris in streams. link


  • EPA action
  • Government oversight
  • Around Appalachia
  • Other news

See also Appalachian Voices web site

 EPA action

July 2014: Court sides with EPA on science-based MTR permitting. In a major victory for Appalachia and clean water advocates, a federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. link

July 2011: EPA issues final mountaintop mining guidance. U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said that “no or very few valley fills” would be approved under new guidance that EPA regional offices will now impose on state regulators for permits under the federal Clean Water Act. The announcement pleases environmentalists, but criticized by industry. link

Spruce mine in West Virginia – a test case for EPA authority.

March 2014: EPA victory. The U.S. Supreme Court declines to take up the continued efforts by Arch Coal lawyers to overturn a federal government veto of the permit for one of the largest mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia history. The move is a victory for the U.S. EPA and for coalfield residents who continue to oppose mountaintop removal. link  January 2011: Veto on West Virginia Spruce mine project. The Obama administration vetoes one of the biggest coal projects in the US in a historic decision against mountaintop removal practices. The agency said it was the first time it has revoked a previously issued permit in 40 years, but the action was warranted because the environmental damage was truly unacceptable. link  March 2012: Largest MTR project allowed. A federal judge has reversed a decision by the EPA to revoke a critical permit for one of the nation’s largest mountaintop removal mining projects. Judge Berman said that the EPA’s unilateral decision in January 2011 to rescind the waste disposal permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia, exceeded the agency’s authority and violated federal law. She declared that the permit was now valid, paving the way for a mining project covering 2,278 acres to go forward. In 2007 the E.P.A. said that mining would have done unacceptable damage to rivers, wildlife and communities. link   

Governmental oversight

Past background by the Bush & Obama administrations
April 2010: Interior Department moves to curb coal mining pollution – link

During the Bush Administration, EPA never opposed or challenged a permit, despite the fact that they clearly violated laws on the books to protect clean water and public health. Apparently, those days are over. A dramatic announcement by EPA that every single one of the 79 pending permits violates the Clean Water Act is a condemnation of the quality of permits being churned out during the Bush Administration and is a testament to the Obama Administration’s sincere commitment to science, transparency, and enforcing environmental safeguards. The Army Corps now has 60 days to revise the permits and address EPA’s concerns. link

February 2014: Federal court strikes down Bush ruling. A federal court struck down a controversial George W. Bush administration rule that opened up Appalachia’s streams and waterways to toxic dumping from destructive mountaintop removal mining operations. The rule violated the Endangered Species Act. Numerous national and Appalachian environmental and community groups challenged the midnight rule from 2008, which repealed a longstanding stream protection – a “buffer zone” of protection from mining activities and dumping around waterways. link

Who controls the permits for MTR – the EPA or Army Corps of Engineers?
In February 2009, overturning a lower court’s ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in coal-friendly Virginia, found that the Corps does indeed have the power to issue mountaintop permits without broader reviews. Adora Andy, spokeswoman for the EPA, said there were between 150 and 200 permits on backlog awaiting the 4th Circuit decision. If approved, those projects would impact at least 211 miles of streams in West Virginia and Kentucky, according to Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst for the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, who analyzed 102 of the permitsPeggy Noel, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Huntington district, said the EPA’s recent letters don’t change the task or the direction of her office, where it’s “just business as usual.” Noel continued, “We are a neutral agency. We’re not for [the mines]; we’re not against them. We’re just here to evaluate and approve permits.”

The EPA and other departments responsible for clean water laws will now subject all applications for mountaintop-mining permits – routinely fast-tracked for the last few years – to rigorous, case-by-case environmental review. These agencies will also exercise stronger control over state regulators. But it still leaves in place the destructive Bush rules that essentially legalized the practice of dumping harmful waste in valleys and streams. The Obama administration has pledged to restore the old buffer zone restriction. But it has said nothing at all about redefining mining waste as an illegal pollutant, which it was before the Bush people came along. A bill before the House would do exactly that. The administration should do it first – New York Times, June 20 2009. link

 Around Appalachia

A 2009 study showed that nearly 1.2 million acres to date had been surface mined for coal, and more than 500 mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. In some counties, such as Wise County, Va., surface mining has impacted nearly 40% of the land area. link

Appalachia.  Mining operations have blasted away hundreds of peaks in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and have permanently altered stream flows and wildlife habitats in those watersheds, according to studies by the Environmental Protection Agency. Mountaintop removal opponents have cited those studies in court papers. (Above –Mountaintop coal mining operation in West Virginia.) Mountaintop removal accounts for a third of West Virginia’s coal production. The technique has been around since the 1970s. More than 700 miles of streams across central Appalachia were buried by valley fills from 1985 to 2001, according to a 2005 EPA report. The report says that, without further restrictions, 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests – an area twice the size of Rhode Island – will be eliminated by 2012. Without the ability to fill valleys with the rocky debris, mountaintop mining can’t be performed. Lower-court decisions found that permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act. link

April 2017: Atlantic coast pipeline would require extensive mountaintop removal. Dominion Resources intends to blast away, excavate, and partially remove entire mountaintops along 38 miles of Appalachian ridgelines as part of the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. link

February 2016: MTR destruction quantified by science. A new study says the impact of mountaintop removal is extreme. It is similar to volcanic eruptions, where the entire landscape is fractured, deepened, and decoupled from prior landscape evolution trajectories, effectively resetting the clock on landscape and ecosystem coevolution. The study estimates that, in southern West Virginia, more than 6.4 km3 of bedrock has been broken apart and deposited into 1,544 headwater valley fills. link

July 2015: Mountaintop removal coal mining has declined 62% since 2008. New U.S. Energy Information Administration data show it is being displaced by natural gas, wind and solar power and other renewables that are becoming the favored choices for electric power generation. Nationwide, all coal production fell 15% from 2008 to 2014. While coal produced from surface mines fell 21% in that period, coal produced at mines that have permits for lopping off the tops of mountains in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia fell 62%. link

May 2011: Putting EPA’s decision in perspective – Matt Wasson, Director of Programs for Appalachian Voices, writes – To the extent that some in the media overstated the impact of the EPA’s new guidance, they can be forgiven. During the press conference, Jackson said, “You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to meet standards like this.”  The EPA’s move is a big first step that provides immediate protection to Appalachian families threatened with new mountaintop removal permits above their homes. It’s a tourniquet that will stop the hemorrhaging, but here are five reasons why this guidance doesn’t immediately or permanently put an end to mountaintop removal . . . link

August 2011: Opposition to MTR in coal heartland. Appalachian voters in the heart of coal country oppose mountaintop removal coal mining, according to a poll released by Earthjustice, Appalachian Mountain Advocates and the Sierra Club.
The poll sampled 1,315 registered voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee and found wide opposition to the destructive mining practice in all four states and across party lines. The number of voters who oppose mountaintop removal dwarfs those who support it. The results of the poll indicate that 57% oppose the practice, and with noticeable intensity (42% strongly oppose), compared to just 20% who support it (10% strongly supporting). link

Two sides of the argument in Kentucky
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth: Mountaintop removal is not necessary to meet the demand for coal. It is done only because it is cheaper for the coal company – primarily because fewer workers are needed and because taxpayers subsidize the mining and sale of the coal, along with its public health s and environmental effects. MTR is the most destructive way to mine coal, creating unhealthy living conditions  for people in nearby communities, eliminating not only our forests and streams but altering a whole ecosystem that can never be restored and forever changing the communities where we live. link
Kentucky Coal Association: Mountaintop mining has been practiced in Kentucky for almost 30 years. Surface mining methods are essentially the same as highway construction. Valley fills are areas where the rock and dirt from mining excavation are placed according to a plan designed by engineers and approved by government agencies. The amount of actual stream loss from fills is minimal. link (may need to subscribe)

Tennessee.  December 2016: Feds ban mountaintop mining in Tennessee. The federal government has banned mountaintop coal mining from more than 500 miles of ridges in East Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, handing a victory to the state and to conservationists who have long sought to protect the region’s forests and streams. The Department of Interior said it is designating nearly 75,000 acres of mountain ridges as unsuitable for surface mining, in essence barring a controversial form of mining known as mountaintop removal. link

Coal River Mountain Watch  (CRMW) is a grassroots organization begun in 1998 in response to the fear and frustration of people living near or downstream from huge mountaintop removal site.

Tribute to Larry Gibson

August 2009: Larry Gibson is a leader in the fight against MTR. This Guardian video/article features the background to the campaign and the disillusionment with President Obama’s lack of action on the destructive process. While the state of West Virginia implores that coal is vital, it only comprises 7% of the state’s economy – less significant than Wal-Mart even. Guardian

In memory of Larry Gibson: West Virginia anti-mining crusader dead at 66. (September 2012) In his decades-long struggle, Gibson brought national attention to mountaintop removal – described by activists as strip mining on steroids for the epic destruction it visits on mountains and streams. A diminutive man, who was not a great orator or well connected, Gibson’s courage and persistence won a roster of celebrities for his cause. Robert Kennedy Jr was a supporter, as were actor Daryl Hannah and climatologist James Hansen, both of whom were arrested at mining protests. Guardian

In December 2009, the late Senator Byrd said: “It is a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states.  Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress. . . I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.” link

 Other news

October 2016: Mountaintop removal still continuing. Mining has declined, due to natural gas competition, but mountaintop removal mining has never ended despite the documented health crisis and cancer link from millions of pounds of strip mining explosives, silica dust, and contamination of waterways from pulverized heavy metals. Goldman Prize recipient Maria Gunnoe, who lives under a mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia, said “People need to stop saying mountaintop removal is over: It is not over! We are seeing new permits weekly.” link

July 2011: 60,000 additional cancer cases linked to MTR. A new study indicates that the cancer rate in areas where MTR takes place is twice as high than comparable locations in West Virginia resulting in 60,000 additional cases among the 1.2 million people living in the affected counties. link

For trailer to “The Last Mountain” – click here

Other site worth checking: I love Mountains