Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

Printable PDF Version of the Mountaintop Removal Fact Sheet


Mountaintop Removal Fact Sheet

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The lush forests of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are among the most biologically diverse temperate forests on Earth. World Wildlife Fund says this area is a biodiversity hotspot that, if saved, will go far in protecting the vast variety of life on Earth. A spring jaunt in the woods affirms that these forests provide habitat and breeding grounds for an incredible wealth of plant and animal life, including a melodious array of flitting, colorful neotropical migrant birds.

These verdant forests, sheltering mountains and stream-fed valleys have nurtured Appalachian culture for over 200 years, and before that were the hunting grounds of native peoples.

For over 100 years, people have mined the coal that lies under the ancient mountains, most likely the oldest mountains on Earth. Coal mining has been the only livelihood for many families, and proud miners gave their lives to open the door for unionization in this country. Although the coal industry has long promised prosperity, the area remains one of the poorest in the nation. Coal Barons deceptively acquired mineral rights and much land in the early 1900s. They view the area like a resource colony, treating the workers poorly, leaving social and environmental devastation and whisking profits from the mineral wealth out of state, while buying the favors of those in political office. Underground mining and "regular" strip mining have their own exceedingly sad legacies, but those pale in comparison to the relatively recent form of strip mining known as mountaintop removal.

What is mountaintop removal?

Mountaintop removal / valley fill coal mining (MTR) has been called strip mining on steroids. One author says the process should be more accurately named: mountain range removal. The coal industry would rather we call it mountaintop mining. We call it ecocide, because it is. Mountaintop removal / valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes. It's hard to imagine a more egregious assault on the natural world.

Multiple, thin layers of valuable low-sulfur coal underlie the mountains of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. These seams of coal are often too narrow to be mined by traditional deep mining methods. To "mine" this coal, coal companies first raze the forests and scrape away the topsoil, usually without even saving the soil or potential lumber, let alone the understory herbs such as ginseng and goldenseal. Next, they blast up to 800 feet off mountaintops, with explosives up to 100 times as strong as the ones that rocked and tore open the Oklahoma City Federal building. Giant machines then scoop out the layers of coal, dumping millions of tons of "overburden" - the former mountaintops - into the narrow adjacent valleys, thereby creating valley fills. In West Virginia alone, at least 500 square miles of our temperate jungles, home to so much wildlife, have been permanently annihilated. Coal companies have forever buried over 1,000 miles of biologically crucial Appalachian headwaters streams.

The blasting has ruined homes and water wells, as well as people's nerves. "Fly rock," more aptly named fly boulder, can rain off mountains, endangering resident's lives and homes. Hundreds of folk and entire communities are being displaced as homes get in the way of the 20-story-high draglines. Heavy rains can gush off the clearcut, compacted MTR sites, flooding the communities below. Coal trucks overloaded with twice the legal weight-limits are out of control, killing people and tearing up roads and bridges which taxpayers have to pay to fix.

Mountaintop removal generates huge amounts of waste. While the solid waste becomes valley fills, liquid waste is stored in massive, dangerous coal slurry impoundments, often built in the headwaters of a watershed. The slurry is a witch's brew of water used to wash the coal for market, carcinogenic chemicals used in the washing process and coal fines (small particles) laden with all the compounds found in coal, including toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. Frequent blackwater spills from these impoundments choke the life out of streams. One "spill" of 306 million gallons that sent sludge up to fifteen feet thick into resident's yards and fouled 75 miles of waterways, has been called the southeast's worst environmental disaster.

Of course, it's not only the people who suffer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has written that mountaintop removal's destruction of WV's vast contiguous forests destroys key nesting habitat for neo-tropical migrant bird populations, and thereby decreases the migratory bird populations throughout the northeast U.S.

How could this happen?

A federal judge has twice ruled that most valley fills are illegal under the Clean Water Act (CWA). His first ruling was overturned on a jurisdictional issue, and his second ruling is now under appeal by the Bush administration. In case the appeal doesn't go the way he wants, Bush has rewritten a 25-year-old rule of the CWA, thus legalizing illegal valley fills. The federal judge reminded Bush that only Congress can rewrite the laws of the land. The whole issue is up in the air. Other aspects of MTR are also illegal, but the outlaw coal industry has many politicians, from the local to the national level, in its pocket. Coal companies continue to buy politicians' support, so they can do whatever they want, choking out the democratic political process just as their frequent spills choke the life out of streams.

Bush received millions of dollars from the coal industry during his 2000 election campaign. He made three trips to West Virginia prior to taking up residence in the White House and has made two visits since to promote the re-election of pro-coal Congresswoman, Shelly Moore Capito - who also receives hefty donations from the coal industry. One of Bush's big supporters in West Virginia, James "Buck" Harless (a Bush "Pioneer"), who raised $250,000 for Bush, had a private audience with the President at Bush's ranch. What's more, his grandson, James H. Harless II, was chosen as an energy policy adviser during the White House transition.

What is being done to stop MTR?

State groups like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth are making strides in reining in the excesses of MTR, although the Bush administration seems hell-bent on undoing every environmental law in the land. Each group has its own style and goals, but we often work in coalition with one another and with other regional and national groups, toward a mutual goal of banning mountain removal / valley fill strip mining. Contact OVEC at StopMTR@ezwv.com to be put our Stop MTR Action Alert! list. Check out our website at www.ohvec.org for more info on ways you can help stop mountaintop removal. Call the office at 304-522-0246 if you would like to join OVEC or make a donation. Together, we will stop this madness!


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