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Coal Companies Destroying, Not Restoring Mountains

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I own a pick-up truck that my neighbors sometimes borrow.  One neighbor, who usually uses the truck to haul away lawn debris, always returns the truck in meticulous condition.  No matter how often I tell him not to bother, he insists on topping off the tank and washing the truck before returning it to my driveway.

Another neighbor is just the opposite.  He sees my truck in purely utilitarian terms and feels no compunction to tread gently with it.  Like a battered rental, he typically returns it worse for wear, and although I can't be sure I think he's the reason why my reasonably well-maintained pickup now sports a small crack in the windshield, a dime-sized dent in the bumper and scratches on the tailgate. 

As bad as a banged up truck may be, consider what happens when perfectly good mountains get blasted, bulldozed, mined and later "restored" by coal companies in Appalachia.  

You see, with few exceptions federal law requires mining companies to put strip mine sites back the way they were prior to mining -- the term is "approximate original contour" (OAC).  But the Charleston Gazette reports that an investigation by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining found that the vast majority of so-called reclaimed mining sites in West Virginia were left much lower in elevation than the original mountains.  In the most extreme example in the OSM study, a mine operator left the land more than 200 feet lower than required by the permit.  (Similar agency studies are currently underway in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.)

The AOC standard stems from the 1977 federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act, which requires that mine operators put rock and dirt back so that the site "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."  Variances to this are allowed in some cases where mining companies propose post-mining plans for schools, factories, commercial sites or public parks.  

Unfortunately, lax enforcement by state and federal environmental officials means that the mountaintop removal reclamation rarely results in reshaping the mountain to its approximate original state.  Nor does much post-mining economic development ever actually occur on the flat land that was formerly mountain top.  The Gazette story quotes attorney Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, telling Congress in 2007 that: 

"The post-mining land is in isolated mountain areas, the land is unstable for building and it will no longer support native vegetation.  In short, mountains and valleys have been changed dramatically in contour so that they resemble no surface configuration on Earth and the land is useless for development."

Lovett also points the finger at OSM officials for thumbing their noses at federal requirements, essentially letting industry "create monstrous valley fills and sawed off mountains that more closely resemble the surface of the moon than our lush, green hills." 

That's a good line -- and so true.  But the most telling soundbite in the story goes to Tom Clarke, the mining and reclamation director at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, who soft-pedals OSM's damning report.  He says on-the-ground reclamation problems cited by OSM "might be considered within the acceptable range of tolerance, considering you are sculpting the ground with a bulldozer, not Michelangelo doing Venus de Milo or something."

I'd certainly think twice about loaning Mr. Clarke my truck keys.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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