The President’s Agenda: Mountaintop Coal Mining

Mountaintop coal mining is a great case study in the complexities of American environmental policy. Very few environmental issues seem so clear cut as ending mountaintop mining, yet the debate over this practice rages. It’s a jobs vs. environment debate in an economically depressed region. It’s blue collar vs. environmental crowd. It’s neighbor against neighbor, corporation against community, and local politicians of both parties against national political groups. It’s a President who has done very little to clean up this practice because he needs to win the swing state of West Virginia, and a Presidential contender who promises coal jobs forever.

In my opinion, mountaintop mining is an extreme environmental harm that is completely unnecessary, and I believe the next President should prohibit this practice immediately.  

First, what is mountaintop mining? Mountaintop mining is a surface mining technique used to remove coal located below the surface in hilly and mountainous regions, most notably the Appalachian region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  Without getting overly technical, the practice of mountaintop mining works like this: once a coal seam has been located, the mountain/hill will be stripped of its vegetation. Explosives are used to loosen the earth above the coal seam. Heavy equipment will removed this loose material and deposit it in the valley floor or another fill area. A dragline then removes the layer of rock to expose the coal seam so that the coal can be mined. There may be multiple coal seams within one mountain (think of a mountain as a layer cake, with layers of coal contained between layers of sedimentary rock), so this process may be repeated. Once the coal is removed, the coal companies are required to reclaim the mountaintop.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of our coal production comes from mountaintop mining. But mountaintop mining represents 40 percent of the mining activity in Appalachia. In that region, it is the most cost-effective way to remove the coal. Mountaintop mining represents a lot of jobs, income, and relative prosperity in an historically economically depressed region.

Any reasonable person would feel compassion for the people and communities affected by mountaintop mining. No one wants to see the economic lifeblood of a region shut down. But I think we need to do it, shut it down.  Ending mountaintop mining will be costly to the region, as there will be a steep economic transition. But ending the practice will have very little impact across the nation’s energy markets, but will eliminate a tremendous environmental harm.

The legacy of mountaintop mining is one of permanent destruction; somewhere around 1,000,000 acres and 470 mountains have been changed forever. Over 2,000 miles of stream have been buried under the waste product, called fill, which remains after the coal is removed. The environmental harms are numerous and enormous: loss of soil productivity, loss of wildlife habitat, the destruction of headwaters and the introduction of heavy metals in the streams that do survive this practice, the occurrence of floods and the destruction of communities, and the end of a way of life for many who once sought sustenance from the mountains and streams and valleys of the region. Man has grotesquely and permanently altered the landscape in the pursuit of a small percentage of our nation’s electricity needs. I think the time for questioning is over: it’s time to end mountaintop mining forever.  

For more information and a great 20-minute video on this topic, see Yale’s Environment360 blog. Image courtesy US EPA.

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