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Mountaintop Removal: FAIL

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If you're looking for guaranteed belly laughs, you gotta check out failblog
There's no sense in describing the insanely funny photos -- the humor
is self-explanatory.  The site inspired me to create a "fail" for mountaintop removal...

Reclamation Fail

The above is a picture I took of a Kentucky mountaintop post-mining.  Supposedly it has been reclaimed -- see that sprayed on grass where lush forests use to be?

Coal companies may not love mountains but they sure love to tout how
they restore mountaintops after they remove them by blasting, digging
and dumping.  In fact, federal law (the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act)
requires mining sites to be returned to their "approximate original
contour" (AOC).  While mining companies are required to backfill and
regrade mountaintops so they closely resemble the original surface
configuration, generally this never happens --primarily because little guidance exists for defining AOC and even less has been done to enforce it.

Of course, the law ignores the fact that it remains nearly impossible
to functionally replace a mountain whose ecological niche was 400
million years in the making.  But here's the kicker: The law allows
companies to restore the area to equal or better economic use
without returning the contour.  In theory, this means that coal
companies may repurpose land to be used for industrial, commercial,
residential, or public use.  In practice, the former mountaintops
typically get converted into meadows, suitable at best for grazing. 
Very little, if any, economic development takes place on "restored"
mine sites. 


As part of the reclamation process, coal companies typically just
re-seed the flattened mountains.  This often involves a process called
hydroseeding, where sprayers coat exposed rock with a concoction of
fertilizer, cellulose mulch, and seeds of non-native grasses.  This can
never adequately substitute for the diverse forest originally covering
the land. 

A big problem is that mountaintop removal mine sites experience
extremely slow rates of recolonization by native plants and trees. 
This is because unlike other forms of industrial vegetation removal
such as clear-cut logging, strip mining heavily removes topsoil. 
Enormous machines compact the fertile land that remains reducing the
ability of native plants to grow in the area.  Even if mining companies
replace the topsoil stripped by the operation, the biological
communities within the soil are no long intact.  Such disruption
fundamentally alters the hydrologic regime of the soil greatly impeding

Waterways destroyed by mountaintop removal face even worse prospects
for recovery than the forests that feed them.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, restoration efforts have never re-created a functioning headwater stream on mined or filled areas through mitigation efforts.

No Mountains, No Money

The big myth perpetuated by the mining industry is that the flat
land created by mountaintop removal is needed for economic
development.  The idea is that leveling mountains provides an economic
opportunity for the citizens of Appalachia, as the lowered and flat
land of a reclaimed sight can be more easily developed than a
steep-sloped mountain.  Yet the thought that Appalachia actually needs
flattened mountains to develop remains grossly misleading and sickly
suggests that the only good mountain is a flattened mountain.

So, for example, in West Virginia -- where the coal industry is trying to take the mountains out of the Mountain State -- only 666 jobs have
been created in Mingo County through reclaimed mountaintop
removal development projects.  Such projects include prisons, golf
courses, airports, strip malls and recreation areas.

In West Virginia alone there exists 1.3 million acres of undeveloped but developable land, according to EPA.  Moreover, EPA's assessmment found
that nearly one-quarter of mountaintop removal permits encompass areas
already rated as having a high potential for development.  In fact,
infrastructure development encompasses less than 2%
of reclaimed mountaintop land in West Virginia alone. Thus the argument
that more flat land is needed for development is flat-out wrong. 

And think about this: Although approximately 92% of mountaintop-mined land in Appalachia was originally forest, nearly 50% of those areas are on track to be converted into pasture as a post mining land use.  In Kentucky, for instance, only 8% of post mining land use in 2008 was returned to "forests", according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.  All told, only about 1% of post-mining land has been converted for commercial use in that state.

It's a more legitimate argument to say that economic development
requires intact mountains more than it needs flat land.  Consider that
coalfield residents already utilize the natural environment as a source
of income, as well as an integral element of their Appalachian
culture.  Additionally, mountaintop removal eliminates the ability of
Appalachian residents to utilize the natural beauty of their
surroundings to grow their economy through tourism.  Take Tennessee,
which has emphasized utilizing mountains for tourism development
instead of energy exploitation -- contributing more than $14 billion annually to the state's economy. 

Certainly, the sand traps of the few golf courses covering a small
portion of reclaimed strip-mined land hide the fact that the
destruction of Appalachia's pristine environment permanently hinders a
better economic use of the region's natural resources. 

Reclamation Fail!

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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