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Mountaintop Removal: Reclamation Fail

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"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.  Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land."  (Leviticus 25:23-24)

"In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like.  But it will be used because it's level land."  -- Bill Caylor, Kentucky Coal Association

Roughly 1.2 million acres, including at least 500 mountains, have been flattened by mountaintop removal coal mining in the central Appalachian region, and only a fraction of that land has been reclaimed for so-called beneficial economic uses, according to new research by NRDC and our partner group Appalachian Voices

Check out our report: Reclamation FAIL.

In a one-two punch, the study by Appalachian Voices analyzed aerial imagery of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee.  This analysis not only confirms the extent of mountaintop removal throughout the region but also reveals that nearly half of this controversial mining has taken place in Kentucky.

“The fact that coal companies can blast away the tops of 500 of the oldest and most biodiverse mountains on the continent shows an utter disrespect for the communities that have to live with the destruction of their land, air and water,” said Matt Wasson, with Appalachian Voices.

Wrecklamation

For years the mining industry has exploited a federal statutory provision that exempts them from restoring the land to its approximate original contour if there is a plan to develop the land for “equal or better economic use” such as “industrial, commercial, residential or public use.” 

However, NRDC’s analysis – also using aerial imagery – confirms that nearly 90% of mountaintop removal sites have not been converted to economic uses.  

That's right: Mining companies don’t love mountains but they love bragging about how they restore mine sites for the benefit of local communities.  Our study exposes Big Coal’s broken promises by proving that post-mining economic prosperity is a big, flat lie.

Of the 500 mountaintop removal sites we examined, we excluded 90 from our survey due to active, ongoing mining activity.  That left 410 supposedly reclaimed mine sites, for which we found that:

  • 366 (89.3%) had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture
  • 26 (6.3% of total) yield some form of verifiable post-mining economic development
  • Only about 4% of mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia, where the vast majority of this mining is occurring, had any post-mining economic activity. 
  • Virginia had the highest proportion of economic activity on its reclaimed mountaintop removal sites at 20%. 
  • Tennessee, which has relatively little mountaintop removal compared to the other three states, had no economic activity on the 6 sites examined in that state. 
  • Overall, economic activity occurs on just 6% to 11% of all reclaimed mountaintop removal sites surveyed as part of this analysis.

The so-called beneficial development projects include: 

  • industrial parks (4)
  • oil and gas fields (3)
  • golf courses (3)
  • airports (2)
  • municipal parks (2)
  • hospital (1)
  • ATV training center (1)
  • county fairground (1) 

In addition, commercial agriculture or farming was identified on nine sites, sometimes in conjunction with other land uses such as residential development.  The post-mining land use status of all but 18 mountain locations was identified with a high level of confidence.  These locations were identified as having “possible” post-mining economic land uses.  This means that some evidence of potential economic reclamation exists on these sites, such as mowed fields or improved structures, but specific land use was not clear.  In some cases, it was unclear whether structures were abandoned or directly connected to former or existing mining activity on site or nearby.

What is clear is that mountaintop removal has yielded little economic development on reclaimed mine lands in Appalachia despite the abundance of landscapes with flattened topography available for industrial, commercial, or residential post-mining economic activity.

“This research shows what a sacrificial lamb Kentucky has been for an industry that is not interested in any kind of restoration,” said Mick McCoy, a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, noting that Kentucky has more destroyed mountains and acreage than other states.  “Here in Martin County, more than 25% of the land has been leveled by coal companies yet we are among the poorest of counties not just in Kentucky, but the entire country.”

“We watch our Appalachian communities being destroyed every day with the false promise of reclamation,” said Lorelei Scarbro, with Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia.  “We, the citizens living at ground zero are losing our way of life and our history with every mountain they take.  I am heartbroken to think what my grandchildren will have left when they grow up if we don’t stop this rogue mining.”

Bottom-line: Reclamation FAIL.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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