The Human Story Behind Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

This is a guest post from Adams Wood and Francine Cavanaugh, Directors and Producers of the documentary On Coal River.

In 2005, Bo Webb was convinced that the coal mining method known as “mountaintop removal” was slowly killing him and his neighbors in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. After some research, he discovered that the coal industry was using 3.5 million pounds of explosives a day in West Virginia to blow off the tops of mountains to get at the thin seams of coal. He could see coal and rock dust drifting from the mines to the houses below, including his own. He knew about the toxic runoff that would hit the streams below, and he was especially worried about kids at the local elementary school. The playground sits just a few hundred yards from a mountaintop removal site and is directly downhill from a 2.8 billion gallon coal waste pond.

For years, the coal industry had insisted that if people near mines were sick it was because of “lifestyle factors” such as smoking, poor diet, etc. Bo didn’t buy it. He didn’t have any training in statistics or public health, but he drew up an informal health survey and began knocking on the doors of his neighbors. We went with Bo to film his efforts, and you can see the scene in our documentary, On Coal River.

We wondered how people in this mining community would react to a pair of strangers coming to their door with a camera, but people were eager to tell their stories. The first man we talked to said his granddaughter suffered terribly from asthma. A young mother told us her kids were more frequently sick since moving to the area. Down the block lived two women who had each had cancer, and their dog had also had cancer.

Bo tallied up the results, and with neighbors and fellow activists, he brought them to the governor’s office. He knew that his informal survey wasn’t “scientific,” but he argued that the results were alarming enough to warrant a pause in the mining until a formal health study could be conducted.

The state of West Virginia never did conduct a health study, but seven years later, there are now 20 peer-reviewed research papers conclusively proving that living near a mountaintop removal mine has significant negative effects on human health.

For the next five years, we followed Bo — as well as his neighbors Ed Wiley, Maria Lambert and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Judy Bonds — as they fought to protect their valley from mountaintop removal, move the local elementary school to a safe place, and protect their water from toxic mine waste. It was a privilege to spend time with them, to witness their humor and spirit, and to be inspired by their unbreakable courage and determination.

This June, Congress introduced the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) Act, which would place a moratorium on mountaintop removal permitting until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Please visit our petition page to take action now.



Related Stories:

Another Mountaintop Removal Company Goes Bankrupt

Mountaintop Removal is Burying Bears Alive

Two Activists Speak Out Against Mountaintop Removal Mining


Photo credit: On Coal River film screenshot


Bre Barker
Bre Barker6 years ago

Thank you. This is a huge issue. Mountaintop removal is a terrible thing.

Mara Comitas
Past Member 6 years ago

Mountain top removal is bad. Plain & simple.

Mary B.
Mary B6 years ago

Don't ever forget it isn't just the greed of big coal mining that is responsible for this. Coal is used heavily in the production of electricity. We ALL can conserve on how much of that we use, especially those who don't think there is any problem with this. It creates jobs, they say, and helps the 'miners' feed their families. As if doing this work is better than being on welfare. So why is it so hard to get your mind around giving people money directly from the Federal Reserve, so they wouldn't need to help destroy our planet?

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Thank you for the information.

Debbie Wood
Debbie Wood6 years ago

How anyone can think that removing a mountain is a good thing is beyond me. Mountains aren't just popping up out of the ground, it take billions of years to build one. Plus the dangers involved, imagine if that pond should give way and hit that school? Remember the one that gave way in Kentucky, I think it was, or maybe Tennesee? How it ruined a river, a community. Mountain top removal should be outlawed as bad for everyone. Bad for the environment, bad for people and animals, just bad.

Ram Reddy
Care member6 years ago

Thanks for the article

Winn Adams
Winn A6 years ago


Teckla Wattman
Teckla Wattman6 years ago

I just finished watching the movie . I've always thought mountain top removal is wrong. You can see it with your own eyes and I feel sad thinking that someday West Virginia will be flat because all the mountains will be gone, all because of greed. It's just so sad.

Glenville J O.
Glenville J Owen6 years ago

Just as we have to lay in the bed we make for ourselves, we have to live with the politicians we elect to run our country for us the people, so they need to be chosen with great care.

However, some politicians are morally weak and deceive us with empty promises to gain power over us, giving this power to wealthy people that have paid them for it, who expect favours in return and care little for our welfare or for the planet that we all share and depend on for our survival.

There needs to be some mechanism in law that forces politicians to abide by the promises they have made to the people or risk loosing the job they have sworn to uphold for the benefit of the people during their term of office rather than after, for they cannot serve both people and money.

I feel sorry for the communities that are suffering as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining and receives no protection from a government that has sworn to protect them. Earlier this year I watched my brother slowly suffocate when his lungs failed, probably caused, his doctor said, by some pollutant he'd breathed during his working life, coal dust being one of the pollutants.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY A6 years ago

Each and everyday, we destroy this planet one little bit at a time. I wholeheartedly and completely agree with Andy C.'s comment about capitalism. It's just got to stop. I only hope that there will be people and a planet left if and when it does. All these dirty forms of energy must be stopped and replaced with the cleaner forms of energy - solar, wind and hydro. This is such a sad story to me. W.VA. is such a beautiful state and they're just destroying it one explosion at a time. Kimberlee W. is correct in her statement that the extremely rich simply use their millions to buy their rights and their laws and to hell with the rest of us. They go in and destroy places and communities with no thought or care as to who actually lives in there and what it will mean for those peoples' lives and the lives of their children. It is all so very, very sad.