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Mountaintop Removal: Moving Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains are literally exploding

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Mountaintop removal has destroyed vast areas of the Appalachian mountains.

EPA

Mountaintop removal is further proof that we are willing to lay waste to the Earth for the profit and convenience that fossil fuels provide. A relatively recent invention, the coal-mining process is making windfall profits for coal companies by destroying the air, water, land and communities of the Appalachian Mountains.

Is it worth it?

How to Flatten a Mountain

Traditional coal mining, accomplished through a complex series of underground tunnels and chambers, is a dirty, dangerous and labor-intensive process involving hundreds of miners for each mine operation. In order to reduce labor costs (by employing fewer people), mining companies devised the process of mountaintop removal in the 1960s.

Sometimes referred to as MTR, mountaintop removal is exactly what its name implies: the removal of a mountain top. First, the forests found atop hills and mountains are cut down and burned off, harvested for wood or simply dumped into area valleys. Powerful explosives are then used to shatter the bedrock on top of mountains, exposing the coal seams underneath.

The tons of rock and soil -- the "overburden" -- removed from the mountain top is hauled to a different part of the mining operation, usually another area that has already been flattened and mined, or the overburden is simply dumped into the valleys and streams on the side of the mountain. This dumping process is sometimes called valley fill or hollow fill (the region's dales and valleys are often referred to as "hollows").

After the exposed coal is removed, overburden rock and dirt from another area is hauled in to cover the mined area. A layer of soil is then placed over the fill, unless soil is not available, in which case a topsoil substitute (often just gravel or crushed sandstone) is used. Finally, some effort at replanting the area with grass, trees or other plants is made.

Scope of Mountaintop Removal

Mountaintop mining in the United States is generally practiced in four Appalachian states, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky. Most estimates claim that some 1,280,000 acres -- an area the size of the state of Delaware -- has already been mined by mountaintop removal methods. But nobody seems to know for sure.

NASA's Earth Observatory notes, as federal and state lawsuits rose over the practice, no person or agency could "say conclusively how many mountaintop removal mines existed, how many streams had been buried by valley fills, how many 'approximate original contour' variances had been granted, or whether the promised reclamation and development had actually occurred."

Responding to a request by the EPA for more information, NASA scientists used satellite technology to uncover some shocking facts about the extent of mountaintop mining in the four states where it's practiced: "Nearly 7 percent of the land had been or would be disturbed by mountaintop removal mines between 1992-2012. More than 1,200 miles of streams had been degraded by mountaintop removal mining. At least 724 miles of streams were completely buried by valley fills between 1985 and 2001."

And, alarmingly, existing permits will only expand the scope of mountain top mining to level more mountains and destroy more streams and valleys.

Environmental Effects of Mountaintop Removal

Downstream of mountaintop removal and valley fill sites, water quality and stream life are often degraded. Water, streambed sediments, and fish tissue often harbor concentrations of potentially toxic trace elements, including nickel, lead, cadmium, iron, and selenium, that exceed government standards. The diversity of fish and other aquatic life declines.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the world’s most biologically diverse forests outside of the tropics have been lost or degraded, and, to date, efforts to restore them have had limited success. Valley fills have worsened flash flooding during heavy rain events. Blasting has cracked house foundations. Floods from the collapse of valley fills and coal sludge impoundments, though rare, have devastated some watersheds and communities.

The Human Costs of Mountaintop Mining

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