The US Environmental Protection Agency defines mountaintop removal coal mining as: “...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.”
And while the practice is used across the nation, the detrimental effects it has on the environment can be absolutely devastating.
What is Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining?
This practice first began in Appalachia in the 1970s. It is currently being done in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. This is the preferred method for many companies as it allows for complete recovery of coal seams using a much smaller workforce than traditional methods.
There are six steps to mountaintop removal coal mining: clearing, blasting, digging, dumping waste, processing and reclamation. Clearing involves removing all of the topsoil and vegetation in preparation for mining. Sometimes trees are burned or illegally dumped, instead of being used for commercial purposes. In blasting, millions of pounds of explosives are used to blow through 600+ feet of mountain in order to access the coal. In digging, large draglines (machines used to move coal and debris) are brought in. Draglines stand up to 22 stories high, can hold up to 24 cars in their buckets, and can cost up to $100 million. During the dumping process, toxic mining waste is often illegally dumped into nearby valleys which lead to the pollution of lands and streams. The coal is then chemically treated during the processing stage. The leftover toxic sludge from processing is often left in the open where it is very dangerous and unstable. Lastly, companies are supposed to help reclaim the land by making way for economic development on the newly flat land. However, less than 3% of reclaimed mountaintop removal sites are actually used for this purpose.
What are the Effects of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining?
The Environmental Protection Agency admitted that the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining could be disastrous. They reported, “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.” Other concerns for communities near mountaintop removal sites include flooding, blasting and sludge dams.
Sadly, current mountaintop removal coal mining projects are taking place in some of the most biologically diverse areas of America. It’s also a region where many cities receive their drinking water from.
Few studies have been done on the long term environmental effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. This is mainly because such studies have been stalled by governmental red tape (more on that below). From studies that have been done, we’ve learned that 1200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or polluted from 1985-2001, over 800 square miles of mountains have already been destroyed and 7% of Appalachian forests have been cut down. A 2003 report also found that full reforestation on large mining sites could take hundreds of year, reconstruction of streams may not be possible and areas of water downstream of the mining sites were found to be more toxic.
Trump’s Latest Decision on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
While the preliminary findings on the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining are already concerning, more research is desperately needed. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case under the Trump administration.
The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) commissioned a study on the new coal mining methods after a request from West Virginia officials in 2015. The OSM had committed $1 million to the two year study. But researchers were told to stop all work on the study immediately this summer.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift announced the change in plans explaining, “The Trump administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out every year by the Department of the Interior. In order to ensure the department is using tax dollars in a way that advances the department's mission and fulfills the roles mandated by Congress, in April the department began reviewing grants and cooperative partnerships that exceed $100,000.”
In May, Trump announced plans to slash OSM’s 2018 budget by 49%. This response, and the halt on the study, directly align with Trump’s work to eliminate any projects that would halt or hamper coal production. Without more studies, mining companies will continue their dangerous mountaintop removal coal mining without any regard for the effects on the environment or local communities.