As a native West Virginian, an issue very dear to my heart is the campaign to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, a method that involves literally blasting off the tops of mountains to expose coal seams and pushing whatever isn't coal down into the valleys and streams below. (As of this writing, the Environmental Protection Agency has put 79 mine permits in six states on hold for review of compliance with requirements of the Clean Water Act and has spelled out stricter water quality standards than have previously been required for surface coal mines. The mining industry will most certainly fight this effort tooth and nail, just as they’ve fought every previous effort to end mountain top removal.)

This devastating practice has already laid waste more than 500 mountains and some 1.5 million acres, according to, much, if not most of that, hardwood forests. In 2003 the most comprehensive Federal study ever undertaken of the impact of mountaintop removal mining found that 1,200 miles of central Appalachia streams have been affected, 730 of those stream miles in Eastern Kentucky. A 2004 study of streams sampled below mined areas, found that 95% were "...biologically impaired." Mile upon mile of headwaters streams that once teemed with activity are either buried or poisoned to the point of being devoid of aquatic life.

The coal industry's claim that curtailing mountaintop removal will cost jobs is less than honest. The truth is that mountaintop removal is a jobs killer, eliminating thousands of traditional mining jobs. Likewise the claim that mountaintop removal mine sites are reclaimed is less than honest, as these sites are unable to sustain the growth of native plant species, including the hardwood trees that once blanketed the former mountaintops. Instead, mined areas are "greened up" using hydroseed and invasive non-native plant species, for a purely cosmetic fix.

In addition, whereas the former forest acted as a sponge and filter to gradually allow rainwater to make its way down to the streams below, what these mine sites leave behind is a densely compacted surface incapable of absorbing surface water from rains and melting snow, a condition that has resulted in increased and more severe flooding downstream from former mine sites. In addition, the surface water coming off former mine sites is too acidic to support life and is, in some cases, toxic. The costs of this wanton and unnecessary destruction of our mountains are incalculable, including the intangible costs of the destruction of mountain communities and their culture, the loss of species habitat, the poisoning beyond repair of precious water resources above and below ground, and the ravaging of a natural beauty that can never be fully restored.

The huge economic impact of the coal industry cannot be left out of the discussion. Coal exports in my state of West Virginia in 2009 were valued at $2.1 billion. Other coal producing states of Alabama ($1 billion), Virginia ($928 million), Pennsylvania ($639 million) and Ohio ($384 million) see economic benefits, even in a recessionary economy. Clearly, calls for an immediate halt to the burning of coal are unrealistic, but beginning to plan for a transition from a coal-based economy in these states is essential for the future.

Meanwhile, the coal industry treats every negative, whether polluted groundwater, increased flooding, toxic waste impoundments (that's another story), air pollution and the destruction of our mountains as merely public relations problems, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to fend off any and all attacks on the industry. (Massey Energy and/or its president, Don Blankenship have spent millions in West Virginia alone to try to elect industry-friendly judges and legislators. In West Virginia, at least, folks like to say that we have the best legislature and judiciary that the coal companies can buy.)

Even the most reasonable critics are demonized as "environmental extremists." But it's hard to think of anything more environmentally extreme than clear-cutting hardwood forests, blowing the tops off mountains and pushing everything except the coal down into the valleys and streams below. Left in the wake of mountaintop removal are what are little more than contoured moonscapes, chronically poisoned streams and groundwater, numerous health problems, and devastated mountain communities.

I'm not affiliated with any group, but if you'd like to learn more, the following are good places to start:

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition


This one in particular is a great one that I came across:

For this article I drew on a number of sources, some of which I've already cited in the text. Bill Estep's article "Ripples of Hope" for the Lexington-Herald Leader has some comprehensive information about mine run-off. The March 18, 2010 Herald-Dispatch ran the headline, "Southern WV has more health issues", above an AP article regarding the prevalence of health problems in mining communities. That article discusses a recent study that echoes a 2008 article published in the American Journal of Public Health and co-authored by Michael Hendryx of the Department of Community Medicine at West Virginia University and Prof. Melissa Ahern of Washington State University.

Several excellent documentaries are out there: Director Bo Boudart's "Power Paths" about mining's effects on Native American communities in the western U.S. and efforts to transition from coal is a good one.

Also, "Burning Our Future" is excellent, as is "Razing Appalachia" that was shown on the PBS program "Independent Lens.”

Finally, as of this writing, a documentary called "On Coal River" is in post-production and should be out this year (2010).

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