Mountaintop Removal Mining

Dragline at Twilight Mine, West  Virginia. Photo Courtesy of Paul Corbit Brown.

Dragline at Twilight Mine, West Virginia. Photo Courtesy of Paul Corbit Brown.

Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is a devastating form of surface mining that is literally leveling Appalachia. In MTR, the coal company razes the mountainside, destroying all vegetation, then uses explosives to remove up to 1,000 vertical feet of rock to reach coal seams. The resulting debris is usually dumped into adjacent valleys as permanent waste piles called “valley fills.” The extreme topological and ecological changes that the mining site undergoes, as well as the storage of waste materials produced from the mining and processing of the coal mean MTR is more harmful to the surrounding communities than any other form of coal mining. At the same time, the extreme mechanization of the process means MTR produces fewer jobs per ton of coal mined than any other method. MTR is practiced in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.

Valley Fill

MTR Valley Fill. Photo Courtesy of Chuck Pezeshki.

Since MTR became a common practice, over 500 mountains have been leveled and more than 2,000 miles of streams that provide drinking water for millions of Americans and have some of the richest biodiversity in our country have been permanently buried. As of 2011, 2.7 million acres of Appalachian forests—more than one and a half times the size of Delaware—have been bulldozed and converted into surface mines. In many places we fly, the devastation stretches as far as the eye can see.

Since 1998, SouthWings has provided flights to thousands of people to help inspire creative solutions to ending this devastating mining practice. Our flights allow our conservation partners, decision makers, and journalists to experience first-hand the enormity of MTR and the resources that will be lost because of mine expansions. We also help our partners document and take action against violations of laws by the mining companies.

These efforts are paying off. In November 2012, Patriot Coal Company, one of the largest MTR companies, agreed to a settlement requiring it to phase out MTR mining. In a remarkable occurrence, a company executive admitted in open court that MTR has serious impacts on the communities and environment in which it occurs. Second, as of June 2013, resulting from a lawsuit supported by SouthWings, National Coal must phase out all current strip mining operations in Tennessee and may not pursue any new surface mining permits in the state. Third, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has taken final action that reaffirms the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal power to veto a mining permit that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued. Although MTR continues to devastate the region, the writing is on the wall.

SouthWings is a proud member of the Alliance for Appalachia, a group of 15 organizations working together to end MTR, and we work with numerous other national, regional, and community groups to educate, publicize, and advocate on the issue.