Mountaintop removal mining is an extremely destructive form of surface mining that primarily occurs in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States in which large quantities of overburden (soil, rock, and vegetation) are removed by blasting with explosives and heavy machinery to expose the underlying coal seam. The overburden is then dumped into valleys, and the mountain undergoes extreme topographic change, taking on a “decapitated” or “moonscape” appearance. Mountaintop removal mining is a controversial issue, frequently being denounced for its destructiveness by local residents and environmentalists, as well as people from all over the United States- and the world- who view this method of mining as an extreme example of mining companies’ thirst for coal no matter what the cost. Mountaintop removal mining, like other forms of surface mining, is the direct cause of many problems from flooding to the destruction of ecosystems and damage to homes. As in other methods of surface mining, on-site storage of the toxic by-products of coal processing in slurry ponds has proven to be an extreme hazard to communities, as the structures are largely unregulated and have been known to break, flooding towns with sludge and killing wildlife.
Prior to mountaintop removal operations, large areas of the mountain(s) are completely deforested in preparation for blasting. These forested areas are frequently rich with rare and endangered wildlife, and the destruction of their habitats is a threat to their existence. The rich vegetation that was once part of the mountain also plays a pivotal role in absorbing rainfall, and without the vegetation, dangerous flooding occurs. Flooding directly related to mountaintop removal operations has wiped out entire towns and killed numerous people in Appalachia.
Once the area is cleared, blasting operations begin to break up overlying rock. Blasting operations are loud and dangerous (see: blasting), as pieces of rock (called “flyrock”) are sometimes thrown long distances, damaging property and occasionally causing injury or death. Blasting also causes ground vibrations that shake nearby houses and can cause cracks in structures and wells. Once the rock is broken up, it, along with the cleared vegetation and topsoil, is dumped into the valleys below clogging up streams and causes flooding. This “tampering” with the natural flow of streams also leads to the disruption of ecosystems and habitats in Appalachia, a recognized “hotspot for rarity and richness” (NatureServe).
The on-site, unregulated storage of the highly toxic “sludge”, a by-product of coal processing, sometimes proves to be the most hazardous of all. The lack of regulation of the structures means that engineering flaws frequently go unnoticed, sometimes with particularly disastrous results. On several occasions these ponds have ruptured, flooding entire towns, killing or injuring hundreds of people and destroying homes, and wiping out all aquatic life in thousands of miles of streams (Wikipedia: Coal Slurry).
Many of Citizens Coal Council member groups throughout Appalachia are working to bring the issue of mountaintop removal to national attention, as well as lobbying political figures to improve regulations on all facets of mountaintop removal mining. Our ultimate goal is for this very destructive mining method to be phased out entirely, to bring a better quality of life to the residents of Appalachia and to protect the delicate ecosystems that thrive in one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the planet.