Mining waste

Mountaintop removal mining

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR), often referred to in the industry as mountaintop mining/valley fills (MTM/VF), is a form of surface mining that involves an extreme topographic change to the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. It is most closely associated with coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains, located in the eastern United States. The process involves using explosives to remove up to 1,000 vertical feet of rock to get to the coal seams. The resulting debris is often scraped into the adjacent river valleys in what is called a valley fill.

Because of the physically destructive nature of the practice, MTR is controversial, and is protested by environmentalists, local residents, and others. Controversy over the practice stems from both the extreme topographical and ecological changes that the mining site undergoes, as well as from the storage of waste material generated from the mining and processing of the coal; proponents of MTR point to its efficiency, its ability to provide jobs, and the resulting increase of flat land in areas where there is often little.


Increased demand for coal in the United States, sparked by the 1973 and 1979 petroleum crises, created incentives for a more economical form of coal mining than the traditional underground mining methods that involving hundreds of workers, triggering the first 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 U.S. Clean Air Act that tightened emissions limits on high-sulfur coal processing. With an increasing call for energy independence in the U.S., as well as a growing call for Coal-To-Liquids and "clean coal technologies", MTR has continued to expand into the 2000s.


MTR in the United States is most often associated with the extraction of coal in the Appalachian Mountains, where the EPA estimates that of Appalachian forests will be cleared for MTR sites by the year 2012. It occurs most commonly in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, the top two coal producing states in Appalachia, with each state using approximately 1000 metric tons of explosives per day for the purposes of surface mining. However, the technique is being used increasingly in central Tennessee and southwest Virginia. At current rates, MTR in the U.S. 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.


As no existing vegetation survives MTR, the targeted land is clear-cut and either sold for lumber or burned. Ideally, the topsoil is removed and set aside for later reclamation. Miners then use explosives to blast away the overburden, the rock and subsoil that lies above a coal seam, to expose the coal. In a March 2006 National Geographic article entitled 'When Mountains Move', John G Mitchell explained how 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 (or a topsoil substitute) 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, increasing the mine depth each time. This can result in vertical descension of hundreds of extra feet into the earth.


Just over half of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by coal-fired power plants. MTR 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.

Historically in the U.S. the prevalent method of coal acquisition was underground mining which is very labor-intensive. In MTR, through the use of explosives and large machinery, more than two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker per hour than in traditional underground mines, and thus greatly reducing the need for workers. The industry lost approximately 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997, as MTR and other more mechanized mining methods became more widely used. In addition, because MTR sites employ fewer miners per amount extracted, 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 certain geologic areas, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow easier access to coal than traditional underground mining, and that it is the most cost-effective method of extracting coal. However, 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.

Legislation in the United States

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 MTR. In such cases, SMCRA dictates that reclamation must create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining.

Permits must be obtained to deposit valley fill into streams. On four occasions, federal courts have ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act by issuing such permits. 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.

The Bush administration appealed one of these rulings in 2001 because the Act had not explicitly defined "fill material" that could legally be placed in a waterway. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers changed a rule to include mining debris in the definition of fill material, and the ruling was overturned. However, if passed, the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R.2169), a bill in the House of Representatives, would revert this change by specifying that coal mining waste does not constitute fill material, in effect disallowing valley fills.

A federal judge has also ruled that using settling ponds to remove mining waste from streams violates the Clean Water Act. He also declared that the Army Corps of Engineers has no authority to issue permits allowing discharge of pollutants into such in-stream settling ponds, which are often built just below valley fills.

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% of 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.

On 15 January 2008, the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to end a policy that waives detailed federal Endangered Species Act reviews for new mining permits. The current policy states that MTR can never damage endangered species or their habitat as long as mining operators comply with federal surface mining law, despite the complexities of species and ecosystems. Since 1996, this policy has exempted many strip mines from being subject to permit-specific reviews of impact on individual endangered species.

On May 25, 2008 North Carolina State Representative Pricey Harrison introduced a bill to ban the use of mountaintop removal coal from coal fired power plants within North Carolina. This proposed legislation would be the first of its kind in the United States.


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. Though the main issue has been over the physical alteration of the landscape, opponents to the practice have also criticized MTR for the damage done to the environment by massive transport trucks, and the environmental damage done by the burning of coal for power.

Advocates of MTR claim that once the areas are reclaimed as mandated by law, the area provides 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.

Blasting at MTR sites also expels coal dust and fly-rock into the air, which can disturb or settle onto private property nearby. This dust contains sulfur compounds, which corrodes structures and is a health hazard.

Artists have been leaders in the fight against the process of mountaintop removal. Writers and musicians have been particularly active in Kentucky. In April 2005, respected writer and social critic Wendell Berry invited Kentucky writers on a tour of mountaintop removal sites that started a movement that continues to heat up. The attending writers have since contributed writing on the issue to national magazines and newspapers and even created a respected book called Missing Mountains, edited by Kristin Johnason, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Mary-Ann Taylor Hall. The book contains a foreword by Silas House and an afterword by Berry and is widely used in college courses.

2005 also saw the release of the album Songs For the Mountaintop, a collection of anti-MTR music. In 2007 the band Public Outcry (Silas House, Jason Howard, Jessie Lynne Keltner, Kate Larken, George Ella Lyon, and Anne Shelby) was formed to sing anti-MTR songs. They have performed at universities, festivals, and libraries throughout the region and in 2008 released their first, eponymous album.

In 2005 the book Lost Mountain was published by Erik Reese and continues to be the definitive text on the issue. Other MTR books that have been critically acclaimed include Tearing Down the Mountains by Shirley Stewart Burns and Moving Mountains by Judy Loeb.

In 2006, cultural historian (Jeff Biggers published The United States of Appalachia, which chronicled the historical contributions of Appalachians and their impact on the nation, and examined the role of mountaintop removal in destroying Appalachia's history and cultural significance. Biggers has continue to write extensively on the cultural and human costs of mountaintop removal, and the parallel connection between the devastation of the environment and the culture. He noted that the origins of Black History Month emerged from the same county in West Virginia where mountaintop removal was first launched.

In 2007 Ann Pancake released the novel Strange As This Weather Has Been, which has been hailed by critics and received several awards. The book is the first major fiction work about the subject of MTR and was highly critical of the mining practice.

In 2007, a 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. On April 18 2008 the film received the Reel Current award selected and presented by Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival.

A book titled Coal River by Michael Shnayerson, released in January 2008, accuses the industry of circumventing public hearings by dividing large MTR projects into smaller sections. Under the practice, mining officials can utilize a legal loophole and obtain permits (Nationwide Permit 21) that undergo a more relaxed review than those required for large projects. Since Nationwide Permit 21 is intended for small projects that "cause minimal adverse environmental effects," citizens typically only discover the large-scale mining after mountaintop removal has already begun. The Clean Water Act prohibits this practice, but the Army Corps of Engineers has continued to allow it. The Corps has said that its allowance of the procedure "strengthens protections for mining related permits."


An EPA 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 of Appalachian streams were buried by valley fills between 1985 to 2001.

Although U.S. mountaintop removal sites by law must be reclaimed after mining is complete, reclamation has traditionally focused on stabilizing rock formations and controlling for erosion, and not on the reforestation of the affected area. Fast-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.

Sludge ponds

As with other methods of coal mining, processing of the coal mined generates waste slurry (also called coal sludge), which is usually stored in large sludge ponds impounded by an on-site dam. Many coal slurry impoundments in West Virginia exceed 500 million gallons in volume, and can be larger than 7 billion gallons. Such impoundments can be hundreds of feet high and sometimes have close proximity to schools or private residences.

The most controversial sludge dam at present sits 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 fund the relocation of the school. The leaking (according to CorpWatch) sludge pond is permitted to hold 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge, and is 21 times larger than the pond which killed 125 people in the Buffalo Creek Flood in 1972.

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.

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