Is this the climax of our human civilization? The peak of our societal development? Or the desecration of life itself?
Mountaintop removal is perhaps the most harrowing phenomena of the Anthropocene era.
Mountaintop removal (MTR) or ‘strip mining’ is a practice whereby mountain ridges and peaks are dismantled with explosive and pushed downhill using drag-line machines to expose and extract the underlying coal. This practice is used to make the production of coal more economically efficient, as less labor is required to extract higher amounts of coal than other forms of mining. However the low economic costs do not account for the steep environmental, social and health costs, or externalities, of the process.
Strip mining is used for the extraction of various minerals (especially coal) worldwide, but there is a highly concentrated usage of the practice within the Central and Southern Appalachian Mountain region. Specifically, MTR occurs in the rural regions of West Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Myriad literature has been published describing Central Appalachia as an ‘environmental sacrifice zone’ – a resource rich mineral colony, exploited to supply energy to surburban homes and cities along the East Coast.
The mining industry has always exploited Appalachian people and land, however, MTR has brought the damage to new horizons (while lowering the horizon line itself).
The reality of strip mining is that it is unsustainable. Coal is a nonrenewable resource, and the contemporary method used for its extraction causes irreversible scarring to the landscape, and damage to the health the surrounding environment and communities. Ironically, the practice began to be used largely in response to an amendment to the EPA’s Clean Air Act in the early 1990’s which called for the burning of low-sulfur coal. Low sulfur coal releases less toxic emissions when burnt than coal with a higher sulfur content. However, this type of coal sits at higher elevations within the Appalachian mountains, and can only be accessed efficiently through mountaintop removal.
The result of this policy change has been the utter decimation of a region. Once reaching as high as the Alps, the Appalachian mountains comprise the oldest existing mountain range on the planet. With it’s long geological and evolutionary history, the region is home to the most biodiverse ecosystems in the United States. According to World Wildlife Fund, “more than 158 tree species can be found within the region,” as well as many species of animals which are endemic, or unique to the area, and now endangered.
What took 480 million years to develop has taken roughly thirty years to bring to ruin. Through the removal of foliage, topsoil and hundreds of feet of rock, called “overburden” or “spoil,” from ridge lines into the valleys below, MTR causes irreparable damage at all elevations of mountain ecosystems. The toppled spoil, otherwise known as “valley fill,” has buried and choked out miles of precious head water streams in the Central Appalachian region. These streams provide habitat to diverse aquatic life and are essential for watershed health. Toxic coal slurry, a by-product of washing and chemically treating coal, also poses a serious threat to the rivers and watersheds in impacted areas.
Heavy metals deposited into the soils beneath impoundment dams (where the coal slurry is kept) pollute the watershed, rendering streams uninhabitable to aquatic life and endangering the health of local residents who depend on local water sources. Wells and homes near strip mining sites are frequently damaged as a result of tremors and rocks sent flying by the blasts. Blasting, as well as the consistent traffic of eighteen-wheeler trucks transporting coal from the mine sites to nearby coal refineries and power plants releases large amounts of airborne dust and pollutants which are detrimental to the health of locals to the region. This issue is compounded on a regional scale by the emissions produced from burning coal for electricity.
While the rural people of Central Appalachia face the direct externalities of strip mining, with high rates of disease and mortality, they receive less and less of the economic gain. Decreases in overall coal production, combined with the mechanization of the mining process, has led to a decline in local employment within the industry. Because of the region’s extraction based economy, there are few substantial employment opportunities for locals outside of the coal mines. Most people in the region work menial jobs with a low income.
Central Appalachian communities have experienced subjugation to poverty and exploitation for generations. The poverty and unemployment rates in the region are high, and the wages and salaries people receive are low comparative to the rest of the U.S. Also, the rate of higher education within Central Appalachian communities is low. The struggles that rural Central Appalachian folk face are compounded by the expansion of mountaintop removal operations.
Through lucrative processes, coal companies frequently acquire rights to the minerals underneath peoples’ homes, using them to force people off their land and expand mining operations. Also, coal companies hardly face legal repercussions for the damages done to peoples’ property under the protection of copious amounts of legal red tape. Historically, the EPA has failed to penalize coal extractors for the damages done to the environment. More information about these topics can be found in Erik Reece’s Lost Mountain.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this issue is how few Americans are aware of it. Despite the US populations’ heavy dependency on electricity from burnt coal, few are aware of the environmental and social costs due to the geographic isolation of the Appalachian mountains where coal is mined. Even driving through coal country, one might not see the strip mines because of the clever (and perhaps thoughtful?) choice to keep mining operations out of sight from the roads.
In January 2019, a friend and I drove from Asheville, North Carolina to Kayford, West Virginia to visit and photograph the strip mines. We felt a need to witness mountaintop removal first hand. The following photo journal documents what we saw: