Formation of the

  Coal Mining
  Mountaintop Removal
  Electricity from
    coal burning

  Reforming mountaintop

  Solid waste disposal
  Deep mining of coal
  Coal, people, politics,
    and money


Reforming Mountaintop Removal    A lack of political will power. Suggestions for reforming the mountaintop-removal-valley fill situation  were made in 1999 by the Governor's Task Force On Mountaintop Removal And Related Mining Practices. Little has come from the recomendations in the report.

     Why? Inaction was the political choice made -- another sellout to the coal industry. Inaction for the entire decade of the 1990s compelled persons concerned about preserving our state's natural heritage to take drastic measures. Sue 'em.

     Most reforms have arrived during litigation instituted by environmental groups and coalfield citizens as well as from federal regulatory pressure. The United Mine Workers of America union edged toward supporting reform but backed off as layoffs of coal miners occurred. 

     In the border state of Kentucky calls for reforming mountaintop-removal-and-valley-fill have rung through the hollows and mountainous areas. Similar abuse of AOC variance and postmining land use requirements exists. Opposition by citizens to these practices grew in 1999 with an emotional focal point being strip mining on Kentucky's highest peak (4,139 feet)-- Black Mountain. In April 1999 coal companies and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth reached an agreement that would save 1,850 acres atop Black Mountain and protect a substantial amount of surrounding acreage. And, as in West Virginia, Kentucky's leading newspaper, The Courier-Journal, has taken the lead in investigating and exposing failures of regulators. 

     Whether we speak of Kentucky or West Virginia, the issues are largely the same.

     Reforming the method of mining. Coal companies in the 1990s chose the most environmentlaly destructive and the cheapest way to mine West Virginia's coal.  Humongous drag lines (shovels) and 240-ton trucks have led to multi-thousand acre, contiguous mines (to take advantage of the heavy equipment used).  Reduce the size of the equipment and the size of mines and valley fills decreases. 

     Reclamation has been done late in the mining process for ease of operation.  Reclaim the land contemporaeously with mining and valley fills shrink in size and reclamation costs lessen.  Valley fills are built from the top down.   Construct valley fills from the bottom up and they shrink in size due to leveling and compaction and thus can be taller.  So there is much that coal companies can do to lessen the impacts of their mountaintop removal mines and valley fills.

     Market forces. The ultimate reform of the mountaintop- removal-and-valley-fill method of coal extraction in West Virginia will be shaped by market forces and timeNeither favors West Virginia coal production.

     Coal producers are consolidating rapidly at a time of low prices and oversupply. Peabody Holding and Arch Coal, both based in St. Louis, are the two top dogs. The coal industry increasingly is dominated by large, well-financed, and sharply focused corporations.  Bigness offers economy of scale and negotiating power as to freight rates and sales prices.  Utilities are demanding progressively lower rates in new purchase contracts. Producers continue to find and use the cheapest places and methods of mining coal.

     In the United States there are three major coal-producing regions:  Appalachia (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Ohio), the Illinois Basin (Illinois, western Kentucky, and Indiana), and the Powder River Basin (Wyoming and Montana).  Coal production is steadily shifting westward, having more than doubled since 1980, while production in the East has been flat.

     Western coal is abundant and cheap to produce.  It lies in thick beds, up to 40 yards thick, in flat, rolling terrain, unlike West Virginia coal.   In the West no mountain tops are removed nor streams and valleys filled.   Topsoil is scraped, the overburden is hauled away (for later use) leaving a pit, the coal is blasted and removed, and the pit is filled. Western coal is low in sulfur and ash, has some heavy metals, contains more moisture and lower stored energy (heat per unit) than eastern coal, and is shipped longer distances than is eastern coal. 

      And the western mines are huge.  In 1998 Peabody's Powder River Coal Company, which controls 2.7 billion tons of reserves, at four mines with 1,000 employees, shipped 92 million tons of coal. To read about Wyoming's Powder River Basin see

     Western coal is cheaper than eastern coal, roughly 80 percent cheaper.  Even with higher shipping costs and lower stored energy, western coal is the long-term winner.  If and when eastern electric utilities modify their plants to burn western coal, West Virginia coal will be in deep trouble.  The greater use by utilities of scrubbers to remove sulfur could help northern West Virginia's high sulfur coal but would not alter the West's competitive advantage.

     Aging industry. The mining of coal in West Virginia is an aging industry.  Pressures for cleaner air militate against using coal to generate electricity.  Cheaper coal is available elsewhere. 

      How do we prepare for the post-coal mining economy?  That is the question. A September 2000 series on point is at .

     And what if mountaintop removal is banned (which seems highly unlikely)?  A Fall 1999 study prepared for the Bragg case [See Valley fills] for coal lessors showed these effects of a ban:  annual loss of 17-18 million tons of coal production (10% of state's production), annual loss of $490 million in coal industry revenue, and loss of $37 million in annual taxes and fees.

     Northern West Virginia, which faced declining coal mining in the early 1990s, has adjusted to the loss of coal mining jobs and revenues. Its natural advantage is proximity to West Virginia University, Pittsburgh, and the eastern seaboard. New Economy jobs have blossomed. The area is a long way from nirvana but hope is present in the air.

     Southern West Virginia's economy remains a one-trick pony called coal.


Last updated on Thursday, September 28, 2000