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What is Mountain Tope Removal? March 31, 2005 2:38 PM

What is Mountaintop Removal Mining?

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. Mountaintop removal /valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes.

Many thanks to ohvec for the use of their photographs and assistance in this page. Coal companies & government contacts

Steps & Effects
1. Forests are clear-cut; often scaping away topsoil, lumber, understory herbs such as ginseng and goldenseal, and all other forms of life that do not move out of the way quickly enough. Wildlife habitat is destroyed and vegetation loss often leads to floods and landslides.
Next, explosives up to 100 times as strong as ones that tore open the Oklahoma City Federal building blast up to 800 feet off mountaintops. Explosions can cause damage to home foundations and wells. “Fly rock,” more aptly named fly boulder, can rain off mountains, endangering resident’s lives and homes.

2. Huge Shovels dig into the soil and trucks haul it away or push it into adjacent valleys.3. A dragline digs into the rock to expose the coal. These machines can weigh up to 8 million pounds with a base as big as a gymnasium and as tall as a 20-story building. These machines allow coal companies to hire fewer workers. A small crew can tear apart a mountain in less than a year, working night and day. Coal companies make big profits at the expense of us all.4. 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. Coal companies have forever buried over 1,200 miles of biologically crucial Appalachian headwaters streams

5. Coal companies are supposed to reclaim land, but all too often mine sites are left stripped and bare. Even where attempts to replant vegetation have been made, the mountain is never again returned to its healty state.

Coal companies involved in mountiantop removal mining and Government contacts


MTR steps

Additional Links

Destroying of Appalachia is adapted End of the Rainbow, a book by Tricia Shapiro. It gives many facts about the impacts of MTR on communities and the environment in a wonderfully readable story form.

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia incorporates 679 excerpts from original sound recordings and 1,256 photographs from the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project (1992-99) documenting traditional uses of the mountains in Southern West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley.

West Virginia photo gallery with MTR description.

Traditional mining communities dissapear as jobs diminish and residents are driven away by dust, blasting and increased flooding and dangers from overloaded coal trucks careening down small, windy mountain roads. Mining companies buy many of the homes and tear them down.Dynamite is cheaper than people, so mountaintop removal mining does not create many new jobs.

Mingo County flood in West Virginia, June 2004

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 se  [ send green star]

 March 31, 2005 2:38 PM

One “spill” of 306 million gallons that sentsludge 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.

Marsh Fork Elementary by Brittany Williams.

The school is in lower left of photo. The clear green patch in the lower left is the football field. The tall cylindrical white object is the coal silo, less than 200 feet from the school. The zigzag is the earthen dam holding the sludge lake (2.8 billion gallons), directly above the school.

Community Impacts

Coal washing often results in thousands of gallons of contaminated water that looks like black sludge and contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The sludge, or slurry, is often contained behind earthen dams in huge sludge ponds. One of these ponds broke on February 26th, 1972 above the community of Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia. Pittston Coal Company had been warned that the dam was dangerous, but they did nothing. Heavy rain caused the pond to fill up and it breached the dam, sending a wall of black water into the valley below. Over 132 million gallons of black wastewater raged through the valley. 125 people were killed, 1100 injured and 4000 were left homeless. Over 1000 cars and trucks were destroyed and the disaster did 50 million dollars in damage. The coal company called it an “act of God”.

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 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

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If it helps... March 31, 2005 2:57 PM

Here's the EPA's take on the issue:

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Thank you! March 31, 2005 3:03 PM

I am going to go ahead and post it. Thank you for finding it.

Mountaintop Removal/Valley Fill

What is mountaintop removal/valley fill?
Mountaintop removal/valley fill is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal.  Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the nation's most important mining law - the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Mining  This law was designed to prevent contamination of water and damage to houses from blasting done in strip mining, which then only skimmed small swaths off the sides of mountains.  The statute also requires that mined land be restored to its previous use and contours, but waivers are often given. When the law was written, some West Virginians tried to prohibit mountaintop removal, arguing that it would destroy the landscape. Their efforts failed, and an amendment allowing it, if granted a variance, was added. But no one anticipated the enormity of mountaintop operations in the 1990s.

Why Should We Be Concerned?
Mountaintop removal began on a small scale in West Virginia in the late 1960s. Beginning in the 1990s it became the dominant coal-mining technique for several reasons:

  • Americans' demand for electricity has jumped 70 percent in the past 20 years;
  • The demand for clean-burning, low-sulfur coal by utilities shot up after Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act; and
  • The development of massive  "drag line" equipment has made it possible to shear off mountaintops to get at multiple seams of coal.

The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns.

Blasting and shearing mountains have added to the damage done to underground aquifers by deep mines.

West Virginia's waterways are among the state's most valuable tourist attractions.   Canoeists and fishermen come for the pleasures of rivers meandering under umbrellas of green or dancing in sunlight.  The valley fills bury streambeds and contaminate streams with sediment from the mines.

The forests covering the Mid-Atlantic region are unique - the largest contiguous temperate forest in the world.   The land is rich with wildlife and native plants.   But in mountaintop removal areas, the native plants are being destroyed, and the wildlife chased away.

What are we doing in MAIA? 
The EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service have conducted preliminary biological and hydrological assessments, and found richer, more established ecosystems than those characterized by state or industry assessments.  Aquatic assessments done using MAIA and EMAP techniques showed that streams destined to be filled in were, for the most part, in good condition, showing few signs of stress.  Land cover characterization revealed that most of the areas designated for mining were over 98 percent forested with little fragmentation, meaning that they provided a rich habitat for large mammals and beneficial songbirds.

As a result of these preliminary assessments, EPA Region 3, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Office of Surface mining, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the State of West Virginia, are preparing an Environmental Impact Statement to minimize the adverse environmental effects from mountaintop mining operations.  Visit for more information.

What Can I Do?

  • Write or call your elected representatives to inform them about your concerns and encourage legislation to protect your forests and waterways.
  • Make sure that your public and elected officials are aware of your concerns and are conducting the critical assessments to determine whether or not adequate and safe water supplies of surface and ground water are available now and for the future.
  • Make sure that your state and county planning agencies conduct reviews of local landuse plans and zoning laws to determine if they are adequate to protect the landscape and natural resources from the impacts of mountain-top removal/valley fill.
  • Make sure that sites supporting fish and wildlife are protected from mountain-top removal/valley fill in order to maintain measurable environmental indicators of healthy conditions.
  • Promote environmental education.  Help educate people in your community about ways in which they can help protect their environment.  Get your community groups involved.  Work with your local watershed association.
  • Support remediation and restoration projects.

Related Links:

 March 31, 2005 3:09 PM

See You in the Mountains
Katúah Earth First! Confronts Mountaintop Removal
John Conner

Mountaintop removal is the mining practice that literally blows the tops off of mountains, dumps them into an adjacent valley, then scrapes off the coal underneath. It is the final solution for our forests and mountains. It really should be called mountain range removal, because multiple peaks are blown off and dumped onto highland watersheds, utterly destroying them.

More than 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by this practice in West Virginia alone (see EF!J September-October 2003).

With a clearcut, you have some hope that the trees will grow back—mountaintop removal is forever. Hardwood trees will never return to these sites, because the soil becomes too acidic. Additionally, this mining practice endangers and destroys entire communities with massive sediment dams and non-stop blasting. It is the death knell for deep mining and mining unions, because dynamite is cheaper than people. As bad as you might imagine it, mountaintop removal is much worse. It is now trying to break its way into the state of Tennessee. We are at a critical juncture of time, place and power at which we can either break the back of this mountain-leveling practice or watch as mountains die.

Ninety-three new coal plants are being planned for construction throughout the US right now. Demand for coal will increase as these new facilities are completed. When the oil starts to run out and there are no concrete plans for a transition to wind and solar power, coal companies will be well-positioned to capitalize on their growing market.

The coal industry estimates that we have enough coal to last 230 years—if we don’t mind leveling our mountains and slowly suffocating. The industry is paying careful attention to what happens with Zeb Mountain in northeastern Tennessee. The coal companies want Zeb Mountain to die with no protest, so they can move on to kill other mountains. The time to halt mountaintop removal is now.

In the 1990s, Katúah Earth First! (KEF!) fought the mechanized logging facilities called chip mills, which we then believed were the final solution for our forests. The mills were migrating north from Alabama, grinding up forests along the way—until they came to our region. We made their lives a living hell and stopped a number of them from opening. Now, coal companies are migrating south along the Cumberland coal seams, starting with Zeb Mountain.

During the Environmental Assessment hearings for the Zeb Mountain project, the Robert Clear Coal Company stated point-blank that this is the “icebreaker project” for the Cumberland Plateau. If we can maintain and increase the pressure here, we can affect the entire industry.

We are already close to bringing Tennessee’s first massive mountaintop removal project to its knees. Coal mining does not have the stranglehold on our economy that it does in the other states that mountaintop removal has devastated. Additionally, most states are responsible for permitting and regulating mining operations under the Surface Mining Control Act. Tennessee did such a bad job of it in the ’70s that the state renounced control, and all mining is now regulated under the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM). This makes Tennessee unique in that we have recourse in the federal courts to stop mountaintop removal.

The KEF! River Faction is based in Knoxville, 40 miles from Zeb Mountain. By throwing every grassroots action in the book at mountaintop removal, we can win—if enough people join us on the frontlines. Knoxville also hosts the headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the largest buyer of coal in North America, and OSM, which grants mining permits in Tennessee. Think of TVA as the coal addict and OSM as the pusher.

The coal that is ripped from Zeb Mountain is being burnt by TVA. TVA recently put new scrubbers on its coal stacks, but instead of giving us cleaner air, TVA is burning dirtier coal. Given that Knoxville has the highest rate of children’s asthma in the country, a lot of people throughout the region are very angry at TVA for its role in polluting our air. KEF! is pushing TVA to stop buying coal from mountaintop removal sites.

Often the environmental campaigns of the West Coast have centered in the public mind on the old-growth redwoods—these forests serve as an icon for people’s cultural identity there. Here, the same is true of our mountains. The people who migrated to southern Appalachia from Scotland and Ireland settled here because of the mountains—we are a mountain people. TVA, OSM and these thieving mining companies are praying that public awareness of their activities stays low until it is too late. They recognize that if a critical mass of the mountain people who hunt, fish, live in and love these mountains find out what the coal companies are trying to do, mountaintop removal will be destroyed by the anger it generates. Our job is to raise awareness and direct the anger at the real perpetrators of this crime of geologic proportions—TVA and OSM.

KEF! has done this by occupying several billboards on major highways and dropping banners off of them. In August 2003, KEF! occupied a billboard while blockading the Zeb Mountain mine for four hours. The blockade, which consisted of two 50-gallon cargo drums with people locked to them, cost the company $35,000 in down time (see EF!J November-December 2003).

This Summer, we spent three Tuesdays in August holding demonstrations outside the offices of TVA and OSM, utilizing guerrilla theater, puppet shows and other tactics to raise publi

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 March 31, 2005 3:09 PM

This Summer, we spent three Tuesdays in August holding demonstrations outside the offices of TVA and OSM, utilizing guerrilla theater, puppet shows and other tactics to raise public awareness and pressure the agencies responsible for the destruction of the Appalachian mountains. KEF! has also driven the back roads around Zeb Mountain, spoken with hunters and folks on ATVs and canvassed local farmers.

In September, Robert Clear Coal Company sold the Zeb Mountain mining rights to National Coal Corporation, after KEF!’s actions and three federal lawsuits made the project a liability for them.

We will fight these mining companies for every mile, every foot—indeed every inch of our mountains—but we must have your help. We need money for bail, for barrels, for concrete, for old cars, for banners, for rope, for guerrilla theater props, for everything including the kitchen sink that we can throw at this mine and at mountaintop removal. We need you. Timing is crucial. Five years from now, when there are 20 mountain range removal projects in Tennessee, it will be too late. We must save Zeb Mountain; we must stop TVA before it destroys our very home. Help us.

John Conner is the child of Sarah Conner, who trained him in resistance. He now lives in Katúah, where KEF! periodically helps him “dispose” of terminator units sent back in time to eliminate him.

For more information, contact KEF!, 2131 Riverside Dr, Knoxville, TN 37915.

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from KFTC (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth) November 25, 2006 7:07 AM

Mountain Removal Mining

Daymon mining #2

What Is It?

Multiple thin layers of low-sulfur coal underlie the mountains of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and are occasionally found in southwestern Virginia and Tennessee. To extract this coal in the cheapest way possible, companies first raze the forests and scrap away the topsoil, usually saving neither for future use (although required to do so by law). Next they blast up to 800 feet off the tops of mountains with explosives up to 100 times as strong as the ones that tore open the Oklahoma City federal building. Giant machines then scoop out the layers of coal. In most cases, millions of tons of “overburden” – the former mountaintops – are pushed into the narrow adjacent valleys, thereby creating “valley fills” that permanently destroy the streams below.

What Are The Impacts?

ON PEOPLE: The heavy use of explosives causes extensive damage to the homes and water wells of nearby residents. Thousands of families have had their wells contaminated or dewatered as a result of blasting, usually with no alternative water system to serve them. Thousands more have experienced cracked foundations, the separation of joints in their houses and similar structural damage as a result of the daily shaking from blasting.


Blasting also sometimes sends “flyrock” off the permitted mining area into residential areas and onto public roads, creating dangerous conditions. One family used to receive a phone call warning them they had 10 minutes to get out of their house before the coal company set off their daily blast.

The destabilization of the earth has caused numerous mud slides that have damaged homes and property. The deforestation of the mountainsides and the channeling of rainwater into drainage ditches has increased the frequency and severity of flooding.

As with other forms of mining, mountaintop removal contributes to dust, mud and noise problems in residential areas. Coal truck traffic makes roads more dangerous, lowers the quality of life for roadside residents and places the burden of frequent road repair on taxpayers.

There are also personal and cultural impacts as communities are displaced, people are forced away from family homesteads, cemeteries are made inaccessible, health is adversely affected, feelings of powerless persist and living in fear becomes a way of life.

ON THE EARTH: Mountaintop removal destroys mountains and generates huge amounts of waste, much of it ending up in valley fills, although this is largely illegal under the federal Clean Water Act. An Environmental Impact Statement released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May 2003 documented the following environmental impacts between 1985 and 2001:

  • 724 miles of streams across the Central Appalachian region were buried by valley fills between 1985 and 2001 (many more miles have been buried since and even more permitted but not yet buried); however, this figure does not count many headwaters streams that are not detailed on maps. More than 430 miles of streams have been buried under millions of tons of waste in Kentucky.
  • another 1,200 miles of streams have already been impacted by valley fills;
  • selenium was found only in those coalfield streams below valley fills (selenium is a metalloid that, according to the EPA, “can be highly toxic to aquatic life even at relatively low concentrations”);
  • aquatic life forms downstream of valley fills are being harmed or killed;
  • without additional restrictions, a total of 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests will be eliminated by 2012 by large-scale mining operations (this is an area that would encompass Floyd, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and most of Harlan counties in eastern Kentucky);
  • without new environmental restrictions, mountaintop removal mining will destroy an additional 600 square miles of land and 1,000 miles of streams in the next decade.
  • there is “no evidence that native hardwood forests . . . will eventually re-colonize large mountaintop mine sites using current reclamation methods.” [federal EIS]
  • large-scale surface coal mining “will result in the conversion of large portions of one of the most heavily forested areas of the country, also considered one of the most biologically diverse, to grassland habitat.” [federal EIS]

ON THE ECONOMY: Mountaintop removal contributes significantly to the loss of mining jobs. Substantially fewer miners are needed for this method of mining than the more traditional underground methods.

  • strip mines produced an average of 32% more coal per worker than did underground mines for the period 1995-99
  • over the past 23 years, coal employment has declined by rapidly. In 1979, there were 35,902 mining jobs in eastern  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
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Mountain Top Removal, A Call to Action
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