Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a controversial form of mining, typically associated with coal mining in the United States, but is also for marble mining and to create construction aggregate ). For coal the process involves the removal of up to 1,000 vertical feet of a mountain, which is removed using explosives to get to the coal seams underneath. The resulting debris is typically scraped into the adjacent river valleys in what is called a valley fill.
Increased demand for coal, sparked by the 1973 and 1979 petroleum crises first triggered widespread use of MTR. The mining method's prevalence expanded further in the 1990s to retrieve relatively low-sulfur coal, a cleaner burning form, which became desirable as a result of amendments to the Clean Air Act that tightened emissions limits on high-sulfur coal processing.
Mountaintop removal in the United States is most often associated with the extraction of coal in the Appalachian Mountains, where the EPA estimates that 2,200 square miles (5,700 km²) of Appalachian forests will be mined using mountaintop removal by the year 2012. It occurs most commonly in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky,the top two coal producing states in appalachia each state using approximately 1000 metric tons of explosives per day for the purposes of surface mining. but the technique is being used increasingly in central Tennessee and southwest Virginia. At current rates, mountaintop removal will mine over 1.4 million acres (5,700 km²) by 2010, an amount of land area that exceeds that of the state of Delaware.
In mountaintop removal mining, the targeted land is clear-cut, which are usually sold for lumber. The topsoil is removed and set aside for later reclamation. Miners then use explosives to blast away the land and overburden, the rock and subsoil that lies above a coal seam to expose the coal. The overburden is pushed into a nearby valley or hollow, creating a pile below called valley fill. A dragline excavator removes the coal, where it is transported to a processing plant and washed. Millions of gallons of waste from coal processing, called sludge or slurry, are often stored nearby in open pools held back by earthen dams. Once coal removal is completed, the mining operators replace the topsoil on the stripped site and seed it for revegetation.
Because coal usually exists in multiple geologically stratified seams, miners can often repeat the blasting process to mine over a dozen seams on a single mountain often adding hundreds of feet more to mine depth.
Just over half of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by coal-fired power plants. Mountaintop removal accounted for less than 5% of U.S. coal production as of 2001. In some regions, however, the percentage is higher, for example MTR provided 30% of the coal mined in West Virginia in 2006.
The previously prevalent method of coal acquisition was underground mining which requires hundreds of laborers to extract minerals, whereas MTR, through the use of explosives and large machinery, greatly reduces the need for workers. The industry lost approximatley 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997, as MTR became more widely used. However, with fewer miners connected to MTR, labor unions have less representation, and the United Mine Workers of America have charged that anti-union practices are often associated with MTR. They have also called for additional legal measures to protect communities from the degradation and destruction that results from nearby blasting. The coal industry asserts that surface mining techniques, such as mountaintop removal, are safer for miners than sending miners underground.
Proponents argue that in many locations, compared to traditional underground mining, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow easier access to coal in certain geologic areas, and that it is the most cost-effective method of extracting coal. The counties that host MTR are often the poorest in Appalachia. For instance, in McDowell County, West Virginia, which produces the most coal in the state, over 37% of residents live below the poverty line. In Kentucky, counties with coal mining have economies no better than adjoining counties where no mining occurs.
In the United States, MTR is allowed by section 515(c)(1) of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Although most coal mining sites must be reclaimed to the land's pre-mining contour and use, regulatory agencies can issue waivers to allow mountaintop removal. In such cases, SMCRA dictates that reclamation must create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining."
Permits must also be obtained to deposit valley fill into streams. On four occasions, federal courts have ruled issuance of these permits in violation of the Clean Water Act. The Bush administration appealed and overturned one of these rulings in 2003 because the Act does not explicitly define "fill material" or material that can legally be placed in a waterway. Under the administration, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers changed a rule to include mining debris in the definition of fill material. Massey Energy Company is currently appealing a 2007 ruling, but has been allowed to continue mining in the meantime because "most of the substantial harm has already occurred," according to the judge.
If passed, a bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 2169, would specify that coal mining waste does not constitute fill material, in effect disallowing valley fills.
A federal judge has declared that the Army Corps of Engineers has no authority to issue permits allowing the discharge of pollutants into such in-stream settling ponds, which are often built just below valley fills ruling that using settling ponds to remove mining waste from streams violates the Clean Water Act.
Additionally, a September 2007 survey conducted by the Civil Society Institute found that 65% of Americans oppose the Bush Administration's proposal "to ease environmental regulations to permit wider use of 'mountain top removal' coal mining in the U.S." The study also found that 74% Americans are opposed to the expansion of MTR coal mining in general, and that 90% of Americans agree that more mining should be permitted only after the United States government has assessed its impacts on safety and the environment.
Critics contend that MTR is a destructive and unsustainable practice that benefits a small number of corporations at the expense of local communities, and the environment. It also produce collateral damages by lots of heavy trucks transporting the material.
Several documentaries have been created about the practice including the award-winning feature "Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal & The Fight For Coalfield Justice" by West Virginia native Catherine Pancake (2006), and the documentary "Toxic West Virginia" by New York-based VBS TV, highlighting the impact on the community as well as the biodiversity impacts created by this form of mining.
In 2007, another feature documentary titled "Mountain Top Removal" was completed by Haw River Films. The film features Mountain Justice Summer activists, coal field residents, and coal industry officials. Included in the film are US President George W. Bush and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, among others.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental impact statement finds that streams near valley fills from mountaintop removal contain high levels of minerals in the water and decreased aquatic biodiversity. The statement also estimates that 724 miles (1,165 km) of Appalachian streams were buried by valley fills from 1985 to 2001.
Although MTR sites are usually reclaimed after mining is complete, reclamation has traditionally focused on stabilizing rock and controlling erosion, but not reforesting the area with trees. Quick-growing, non-native grasses, planted to quickly provide vegetation on a site, compete with tree seedlings, and trees have difficulty establishing root systems in compacted backfill. Consequently, biodiversity suffers in a region of the United States with numerous endemic species. Erosion also increases, which can intensify flooding. In the Eastern United States, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative works to promote the use of trees in mining reclamation.
Blasting at a mountaintop removal mine also expels coal dust and fly-rock into the air, which can then disturb or settle onto private property nearby. This dust contains sulfur compounds, which corrodes structures and is a health hazard.
Advocates of mountaintop removal point out that once the areas are reclaimed as mandated by law, the technique provides valuable flat land suitable for many uses in a region where flat land is at a premium. They also maintain that the new growth on reclaimed mountaintop mined areas is better suited to support populations of game animals.
Potential for environmental disastersEdit
In common with other methods of coal mining, processing the coal mined by mountaintop removal generates waste slurry (also called coal sludge), which is usually stored behind a dam on-site. Many coal slurry impoundments in West Virginia exceed 500 million gallons in volume, and some, including the Brushy Fork impoundment in Raleigh County, exceed 7 billion gallons. Such impoundments can be hundreds of feet high and have close proximity to schools or private residences.
The most controversial sludge dam at present sits 400 yards (400 m) above Marsh Fork Elementary School. On May 31, 2005, 16 people were arrested at Governor Manchin's office for protesting the Governor's refusal to pay to relocate the school.
The leaking sludge pond is permitted to hold 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge, and is 21 times larger than the pond which killed 125 people in the Buffalo Creek Flood.
Kentucky's Martin County Sludge Spill occurred after midnight on October 11, 2000, when a coal sludge impoundment broke through into an underground mine below, propelling 306 million gallons of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.