Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) sounded like a brilliant idea during the petroleum crisis of the 1970s (as did pea green shag carpet). But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the Clean Air Act tightened emissions limits for high-sulfur coal processing, that blowing the tops off the Appalachian Mountains to snag some lower-sulfur coal became popular.
It would be simple. Step 1: Blow top off mountain. Step 2: Remove coal. Step 3: Put top back on mountain…Just like taking a cookie from a cookie jar—with explosives.
You see, steps one and two really are quite simple, but that third step is a toughie.
In reality, the process goes something like this: The coal company first clears all of the vegetation and topsoil from the site, then, they blow a hole in the mountain to clear away the rock and subsoil (the “overburden” in MTR lingo). Once the coal seam is exposed, they bring in the dragline—a big-ass crane (22 stories tall with a bucket that could hold 24 compact cars)—to dig up the coal. The “good stuff” (a.k.a. the coal) is washed and loaded onto trains and the overburden is dumped into a nearby valley, creating a “valley fill.” Meanwhile, coal slurry—the nasty water leftover after cleaning the coal—is stored in an open pool.
Then there’s step three. When they’re done with a site, mine operators are required to try to put it back the way they found it. Obviously, they can’t put the top back on the mountain, but they can fill the hole and reforest the site. So most coal companies just dump topsoil on the site, then spray it with grass seed and fertilizers. It may take hundreds of years for the site to actually return to its natural state.
Despite the inability to put the mountains, forests and streams back together again, MTR has a few things going for it. It’s safer than underground mining because workers don’t have to go into a questionably stable mine shaft. And it’s faster because most of the work can be done by machines instead of people. Without those pesky people in the way—the industry lost about 10,000 jobs in the 1990s—the machines can work quickly, but still dig up only one ton of coal for every 16 tons of overburden.
Some people even think topless mountains are better than our famous majestic purple mountains. Who would want mountains when you can have flat land? Not the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, that’s for sure. He said, “A lot of people look at mountain top removal [mining] as a negative, but I see it as a positive. We need to stop apologizing for coal … I want us to promote mountain top removal, because we need flat land. We can not have economic expansion without places to do things and part of mountain top removal is for places like hospitals, airports and different type of merchants.” (Umm…okaaay.)
Seriously, MTR is bad news. (Even Bank of America thinks so.) So far, mountaintop removal mining has leveled an estimated 800 square miles of previously mountainous terrain. According to EPA, MTR destroyed 7% of Appalachia’s hardwood forests and more than 1,200 miles of streams between 1985 and 2001. By 2012, EPA predicts, MTR will have destroyed more than 2,000 square miles of Appalachian forest—that adds up to a chunk of land larger than the entire state of Delaware.
But that’s not a Delaware-sized chunk of any ol’ forest. That’s Appalachian forest, which just happens to be the most diverse temperate hardwood forest in the world and the most bio-diverse place in all of North America. The Appalachian forest is also THE major carbon sink on the East Coast. It’s like our own little Amazon rainforest and we’re blowing it up for a little bit (only 5% of all of our coal-fueled energy) of coal.
Not such a brilliant idea, eh?