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History of Mountain Top Removal March 31, 2005 8:15 PM

Destroying Appalachia
Adapted End of the Rainbow, a book by Tricia Shapiro.

Blair Mountain, Virginia before MTR mining

The hills and hollows of southern West Virginia are an intimate landscape, a tight and intricate jumble of steep hills and narrow valleys. This is the heart of the central Appalachian plateau, where mountains among Earth's most ancient have eroded over aeons to slopes of rich soil laced with intricate streams and cloaked with a fabulously diverse hardwood forest, the ancient nursery whence life flowed after glaciers left lands to the north scraped bare. Here, undisturbed by glacial devastation, soil and forest have developed to exceptional richness and complexity. On a midsummer's day in 2004 I follow a gravel road up, up through this forest, gawking at the wonderland of plantlife--eighty-odd species of trees and shrubs, northern and southern species intermingled, sheltering an abundance of ferns, grasses, herbs, mosses, fungi, and lichens. I'm tempted to stop and explore, but my destination is farther on, farther up.

At the top of the hill is an old graveyard, and at the edge of the graveyard is--how can I describe it? If I'd visited here a few years ago, I'd have been looking out from the big hill I'm standing on into the side of a much bigger hill, a mountain, covered with similarly rich forest.

West Virginia photo from OVEC
Instead what I see, far below me, is thousands of acres of naked devastation. The top several hundred feet of the mountain, its forest stripped entirely, has been blown up layer by layer to remove coal, an operation that's still continuing. What's left after the coal is removed--topsoil, subsoil, rock, clay, gravel all churned together--has been pushed off the sides of what remains of the mountain, burying dozens of miles of streams. Forest, mountain, valleys, streams--all are obliterated. What's left is an unstable and nearly sterile moonscape that the mining company sprays in the spring with grass seed. By midsummer, much of the grass has washed away; the rest will die before next spring. Forest won't grow here again, at least not in any time frame meaningful to humans.

Worse, the devastation spreads far beyond what I can see. This particular mountaintop removal surrounds the hill where I'm standing, Kayford Mountain, and stretches through neighboring hills for seventeen miles. Other operations cover much of the coal country of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio. In West Virginia alone, more than 300,000 acres of forest have been stripped for mountaintop removal, more than a thousand miles of stream buried. Worse yet, mountaintop removal devastates not only the mountains it actually removes but also just about every scrap of land and waterway below it. By removing water-retaining forest and burying streams with millions of yards of mining wastes, mountaintop removal compels rainwater to find new routes to the valleys below--faster and laden with debris eroded from the stripped and unstable highlands. Even the remaining forested hillsides become less stable and more prone to landslides. The remaining streams become choked with debris, reducing their capacity to carry water even as rain now reaches them all at once, instead of slowly trickling in from spongy forest. Floods become more frequent and extreme. Mining companies call them acts of God.

The graveyard where I'm standing is a very old graveyard, still tended by family who live nearby. They and many of their neighbors are descended from European-Americans who settled here in the early 1800s. At that time, most people lived up in the hills, farming the little valleys (local people call them hollows) and natural terraces on the hillsides with small plots of vegetables and grains; somewhat hillier places became pasture for domestic animals. From their woods they harvested firewood and lumber, mushrooms, greens, berries, pawpaw and persimmon fruits, and nuts, each in its own season, as well as various medicinal and other useful roots and herbs sold commercially or used locally. In the summertime fish were caught in local streams, and in various seasons bears, wild turkeys, squirrels, and deer were hunted.

After the Civil War, here as in the rest of the country, from the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta to the flatlands of Kansas to California's Central Valley, railroads pushed into places previously too isolated to service distant markets. Businessmen saw the rich timberlands here, and soon found coal deposits too--and they saw that the people who called this land home were neither wealthy nor politically powerful. Between the 1880s and 1920 these businessmen acquired nearly all the land here, often by intimidation and coercion, sometimes by vandalism and outright theft. Courthouses were burned, destroying records landholders needed to prove ownership. As the land changed hands, nearly all of the old-growth forest was clearcut and shipped out, leaving horrific slash fires and flash floods in its wake.
The former farmers were moved from the hills to the hollows. Most became wage laborers, loggers at first, then as the forest disappeared more  [ send green star]

 March 31, 2005 8:18 PM

and more as coal miners. (One gravestone here commemorates a 14-year-old boy who died in a mine in 1909, the year logging peaked.) Coal mining boomed through the 1920s, when many of the narrow little villages you can see today in the hollows were built, as company towns. After the bust of the Great Depression, coal mining picked up again during World War II then boomed in the 1950s, mostly strip-mining then. That boom went bust in the 1960s, then underground mining revived once again in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, shifts in regulatory and tax policy akin to those that drove the consolidation of American agriculture and furthered the nationwide elimination of manufacturing jobs also encouraged mining companies to grow big and to invest in equipment rather than human labor. Bigger corporations with bigger equipment can better manage bigger-scale operations with fewer workers, and as with American agriculture, investment in expensive, specialized mining equipment both compelled and rewarded bigger operations. Increasingly, mining companies came to favor huge-scale mountaintop removal over traditional underground mining or smaller-scale strip mining. Spurred further in the 1990s by competition from Wyoming coalfields and by demands for higher profits to satisfy investors eyeing a soaring stock market, West Virginia's mountaintop removal operators pursued every way to maximize profit heedless of cost to nature or local communities--costs they quite rationally concluded they wouldn't be held accountable for.

Mountaintop removal equipment is huge and expensive to build or to move. A dragline, the centerpiece of any such operation, can cost $25 million, stand twenty stories tall, and move a hundred or more cubic yards in a single bite. (A single cubic yard fills the back of a half-ton pickup truck.) To work at maximum efficiency, a dragline requires a fleet of enormous trucks and other equipment. Such enormous expense can be recouped only at a mine site enormous enough to keep it all working full tilt for long enough to pay for itself--preferably enormous enough to keep the equipment busy long beyond that point.

Unhampered by effective regulation, mining companies have kept their expensive draglines running 24/7 at ever-bigger mines. The total acreage of active and proposed mountaintop removal sites has dramatically increased since 2000, to a frenzied crescendo, perhaps because coal companies have been encouraged by the pro-mining orientation of the George W. Bush administration to expect little federal enforcement of relevant environmental restrictions (state regulation of mining has long been toothless). Or perhaps they're simply seeking to get whatever they can at the highest possible profit before somebody forbids at least some of the damage they're doing or requires them to clean up after themselves.

From the Mingo County Flood, West Virginia. Photo from CRMW

For the damage they're doing, to hills and hollows, forests and streams and the people who live among them, is as enormous as the mines themselves. The human community here has weathered two centuries of dispossession, disempowerment, and hard times. Through all of that, people here have maintained access to the forest, for hunting and foraging and recreation as well as for visiting graveyards. Now they're finally losing that as well, as the forest and the very hills themselves are clearcut and blasted and washed away. Worse still, mining doesn't even provide the jobs it used to. Since the 1980s, as coal production has increased, the number of mining jobs here has decreased, for mountaintop removal needs much less labor than underground mining. (One rule of thumb has it that each dragline replaces one hundred workers.) People are leaving these communities--the population of the entire state of West Virginia has been dropping--but not just because they can't find work. Their problems are much worse than just that.

Bigger mines mean bigger valley fills and slurry ponds. Valley fills, where blasted mountaintops are pushed aside to roll down into a valley, are now as big as 100 million cubic yards. Slurry ponds, impoundments containing the water and toxic chemicals used to wash coal, now commonly contain millions of gallons. Many of these immense valley fills and slurry ponds are sited near villages nestled in a hollow beneath them. If one bursts loose from its containment (several have, and others are considered at high risk for doing so), it can bury all or much of a village. Or an elementary school. Even without such catastrophic failure, the effects of these waste dumps can be dire. Slurry ponds can and have polluted streams and wells.

From the Mingo County Flood, West Virginia. Photo from CRMW

Valley fills and clearcuts can and do alter the flow of rainwater runoff so that once-stable hillsides bordering long-established neighborhoods are now moving, buckling foundations and threatening to bury the homes and their owners after the next heavy rain. People here have long expected that coal mining can cause terrible hardship (as the family of that long-ago 14-year-old boy would attest), but that it can turn the hills of their own backyards into hazards, into anything other than the bulwarks of stability they've always been, through all of the generations their families have lived among them--this is almost beyond belief. It's certainly beyond what anyone living here could have imagined just a few years ago. Even seeing it with their own eyes,  [ send green star]

 March 31, 2005 8:18 PM

it's hard to believe, even now, that this is happening.

In perhaps the most egregious example of utterly heedless waste disposal, mining companies have been permitted to dispose of slurry at some mine sites by pumping it into abandoned underground mines. The underground mines here were of course not structurally designed for this, and sometimes the pressure of all that slurry blows out the side of the hill containing the mine, sending slurry and soil gushing down into the hollow below, burying whatever road, stream, or building that's there. One village I've seen--two rows of houses lined up along a road and a stream in a narrow hollow between two steep hillsides--has had its road blocked (temporarily) and its stream polluted (permanently) by such a blowout; the resulting raw gash in the hillside remains clearly visible, apparently unfixable. But even that's not the worst of this village's problem, for the pressure of the slurry (in both hills) combined with the mining-altered flow of rainwater runoff on the surface of the hills, is causing the hillsides to swell and heave and slump into the hollow below. Backyards are disappearing. Retaining walls have collapsed. Foundations have shifted. Floors have buckled and cracked wide open. Many of these homes are the only sizable financial asset their owners have ever possessed; with their market value now effectively nil, they've become deadly prisons for their owners, some quite elderly. Some neighbors call each other after a heavy rain to make sure they're both still there, not yet buried alive.

Nor does the damage from mountaintop removal end even here, for the effects of mountaintop removal in central Appalachia will linger forever in reduction of natural and human capital. What will be left if the mountaintop removal miners are allowed to take everything they want? It's not reasonable to believe that the coal companies will fix what they've damaged here. In the past, inadequate performance bonds have led to inadequate mine cleanups. Coal companies also have divided their operations into many separate legal compartments, so that when one operation incurs alot of liability (a bad slurry spill, perhaps, or a valley fill failure), that operation can declare bankruptcy and the parent company can walk away without paying for it. But even if we assume the mining companies have all the good faith in the world, that's not enough to mend the mess they're making with mountaintop removal, for this is a mess well beyond human ability to mend.

What will be left, if mountaintop removal is allowed to run its course, is an utterly unstable, valueless landscape. Forest won't grow here. It won't be farmable. It won't be buildable. Obviously there'll be little or no employment. Few of the long-established little communities here can possibly survive, economically or even just physically. And as the people who've long lived here disperse, their unique culture and intimate knowledge of their home landscape will die with that landscape. Any full and honest accounting of mountaintop removal must include these costs--huge, real, and carried forward forever. On the plus side of the balance sheet, all that mountaintop removal offers is a small percentage of America's coal supply for a few years, and a few years of increased profit margins for a few large corporations.

Adapted with author's permission from End of the Rainbow, a book by Tricia Shapiro. For permission to use this copyrighted text elsewhere, please e-mail trishapiro at
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WV Mountains April 12, 2005 10:53 AM

Thanks for sharing this!

My heart sank as I read this. I choose to live in rural WV because I love the mountains. The mountains are part of my soul and being.

I have been inspired,

Shannon N. from  West Virginia

 [ send green star]  [ accepted]
Shannon, April 13, 2005 2:42 PM

Thank you. I always have to read it a few times for it all to soke in. Reading it once just never did it for me. Make sure to tell your friends (no matter where in the world) about what is going on. A great website is  check it out


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Sad beyond belief May 17, 2005 3:31 PM

Thanks for all the info. I am in shock.  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
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Mountain Top Removal, A Call to Action
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