What is Mountain Top Removal Mining?
removal / valley fill coal mining (MTR) has been called strip
mining on steroids. One author says the process should be
more accurately named: mountain range removal. Mountaintop
removal /valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming
some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in
the world into biologically barren moonscapes.
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Many thanks to OHVEC
for the use of their photographs and assistance in this page.
Steps and Effects
Forests are clear-cut; often scraping away
topsoil, lumber, understory herbs such as ginseng and goldenseal,
and all other forms of life that do not move out of the way
quickly enough. Wildlife habitat is destroyed and vegetation
loss often leads to floods and landslides. Next, explosives
up to 100 times as strong as ones that tore open the Oklahoma
City Federal building blast up to 800 feet off mountaintops.
Explosions can cause damage to home foundations and wells.
“Fly rock,” more aptly named fly boulder, can
rain off mountains, endangering resident’s lives and
Huge Shovels dig into the soil and trucks haul it away or
push it into adjacent valleys.
3. A dragline digs into the rock to
expose the coal. These
machines can weigh up to 8 million pounds with a base as big
as a gymnasium and as tall as a 20-story building. These machines
allow coal companies to hire fewer workers. A small crew can
tear apart a mountain in less than a year, working night and
day. Coal companies make big profits at the expense of us
Giant machines then scoop out the layers of coal, dumping
millions of tons of “overburden” – the former
mountaintops – into the narrow adjacent valleys, thereby
creating valley fills. Coal companies have forever buried
over 1,200 miles of biologically crucial Appalachian headwaters
Coal companies are supposed to reclaim land, but all too often
mine sites are left stripped and bare. Even where attempts
to replant vegetation have been made, the mountain is never
again returned to its healthy state. Reclamation
Coal washing often results in thousands of gallons
of contaminated water that looks like black sludge and
contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The sludge,
or slurry, is often contained behind earthen dams in
huge sludge ponds. One of these ponds broke on February
26th, 1972 above the community of Buffalo Creek in southern
West Virginia. Pittston Coal Company had been warned
that the dam was dangerous, but they did nothing. Heavy
rain caused the pond to fill up and it breached the
dam, sending a wall of black water into the valley below.
Over 132 million gallons of black wastewater raged through
the valley. 125 people were killed, 1100 injured and
4000 were left homeless. Over 1000 cars and trucks were
destroyed and the disaster did 50 million dollars in
damage. The coal company called it an “act of
Marsh Fork Elementary by Brittany Williams.
The school is in lower left of photo. The clear green
patch in the lower left is the football field. The tall
cylindrical white object is the coal silo, less than
200 feet from the school. The zigzag is the earthen
dam holding the sludge lake (2.8 billion gallons), directly
above the school.
Traditional mining communities disappear
as jobs diminish and residents are driven away by dust,
blasting and increased flooding and dangers from overloaded
coal trucks careening down small, windy mountain roads.
Mining companies buy many of the homes and tear them
down. Dynamite is cheaper than people, so mountaintop
removal mining does not create many new jobs.
Mingo County flood in West Virginia
Mountaintop removal generates huge amounts
of waste. While the solid waste becomes valley
fills, liquid waste is stored in massive, dangerous
coal slurry impoundments, often built in the headwaters
of a watershed. The slurry is a witch’s brew of
water used to wash the coal for market, carcinogenic
chemicals used in the washing process and coal fines
(small particles) laden with all the compounds found
in coal, including toxic heavy metals such as arsenic
and mercury. Frequent blackwater spills from these impoundments
choke the life out of streams. One “spill”
of 306 million gallons that sent sludge up to fifteen
feet thick into resident’s yards and fouled 75
miles of waterways, has been called the southeast’s
worst environmental disaster.
Of course, it’s not only the people who suffer.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has written that
mountaintop removal’s destruction of WV’s
vast contiguous forests destroys key nesting habitat
for neo-tropical migrant bird populations, and thereby
decreases the migratory bird populations throughout
the northeast U.S.
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