What is MTR?
Mountaintop removal (MTR) is a destructive form of surface coal mining that is being practiced throughout Appalachia. For a quick introduction, watch this short video:
Much of the land in Central Appalachia is owned by land-holding companies that acquired vast swaths of land–by the thousands of acres–in the early part of the 20th century. Some of this land was obtained legally, while more was obtained through coercion, theft, falsified documents, or deceit. (For a closer look, research the history of the Broad Form Deed).
Today, many of these land-holding companies remain, leasing their land to coal companies for a portion of the profits. Land that is not held by these land companies, but rather that is owned by citizens, is often still acquired today through practices similar to those employed a century ago. Companies mine across property lines forcing families to leave with ruined land and water; they buy out a few homes in a hollow, dividing communities and pressuring other families to leave; they falsify deeds and take citizens to court for far more money than they have.
Removing Timber and Topsoil
Once land has been obtained by a coal company, the first step is to remove the timber from the land. Occasionally, timber is clear cut and harvested for sale. Other times, trees are dumped into a nearby valley or burned.
After this first layer of “over burden”–the term coal companies use for anything lying above a seam of coal–is removed, the topsoil is then stripped. Some of this topsoil is piled up and stored for reclamation, assuming the coal company did not apply for a variance in their permit, and much of it is also dumped in adjacent valleys, burying head water streams.
In addition to eliminating water sources, removing the timber and topsoil from mountains practically guarantees flooding and mudslides for communities below.
After the timber and topsoil are removed and a layer of rock is exposed, the ground is packed with explosives to “blast” the rock above the coal seam.The rock is turned to rubble and it too is dumped into the valley below or used to back fill the site.
Blasting can break foundations, destroying homes and sending boulders down mountainsides and into communities. One side effect is the pervasive dust that settles down into well-populated hollows, covering cars and house and filling the lungs of residents with deadly particulates.
The Coal Seam
Once the coal seam is exposed, a twenty-story tall machine called a dragline is used to strip away the coal seam. It only takes a few workers to work a mountaintop removal site due to the enormous machines used in the process.
After the coal is mined, it is hauled on semi-trucks to a nearby processing facility. These often overloaded trucks fill hollows with coal dust, destroy the small mountain roads that were not build for such traffic, and create a driving hazard for local residents.
Once the coal arrives at the plant, it is “cleaned”–meaning much of the dirt and many of the heavy metals are removed from the coal. The waste material from the cleaning process is stored as a liquid known as slurry. This toxic sludge is held in large, billion-gallon or more dams or it is injected underground into old mine shafts where it leaks into the water table and destroys drinking water.
Under federal law, coal companies are required to restore the land they have stripped. In many cases, this means returning the land to its “approximate original contour,” planting trees, and recreating a habitat for wildlife. Because these requirements range from expensive to impossible, most companies do not properly reclaim land. Typically companies will seek and receive a variance to not reclaim or the small subsidiary of the larger company that is responsible for the mine will go purposefully bankrupt, and so the land is left to underfunded state agencies to reclaim–agencies which are unable to do so.
Nationally, the Obama Administration has taken small steps to curtail some of the worst impacts of mountaintop removal, but devastating health impacts and economic problems caused by mountaintop removal continue to threaten our region.
Hard fought regulations, a booming gas market, limits on coal-fired power plants, and ever harder to reach coal seams mean that mining in the region has decreased; but the influence of the coal industry has not. Local victories, such as successful selenium lawsuits, have been overridden by efforts of state-level politicians, under the watch of federal EPA. Disasters, such as the 2014 coal chemical spill that threatened the health, water and economic prospects of over 300,000 in West Virginia continue to occur without repercussion to the industry that created the disaster. Along with these affronts, current and proposed mines are still impacting our communities. New mining permits are designed around loopholes in regulations: mines are smaller and linked in strings and some mines are being disguised as highway projects or other construction. What’s more, beyond the new mining itself, our communities are forced to deal with legacy costs of old mines.
The Alliance for Appalachia works to identify these new threats to our mountains and communities and to link strategies to end these affronts.