Mountain top removal mining (MTR), also known as mountaintop mining (MTM), is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. Entire coal seams are removed from the top of a mountain, hill or ridge by removing the so-called overburden (soil lying above the economically desired resource). After the coal is extracted, the removed material is put back onto the ridge to approximate the mountain’s original contours. Any overburden the mining company considers excess (that which it’s not able to place back onto the ridge top) is moved into neighboring valleys. Mountaintop removal is most closely associated with coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. Peer-reviewed studies show that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts, including loss of biodiversity. But, the industry claims that it can “reclaim” and reforest areas subject to MTR. Even if this is not widely done now, could it be done more in the future? Another point of debate is whether MTR creates substantial jobs, or whether it displaces jobs by replacing traditional mining with the use of dynamite and huge machines. The impact on local communities in terms of air quality, drinking water, and natural beauty is also a point of debate. The coal industry tends to claim that mountaintop removal creates flat lands that are more suitable to economic development and recreational uses of different kinds. These arguments and more are discussed below.
The forest on a mountaintop is removed permanently in mountaintop removal coal mine. It cannot recover. This differs significantly from closed mines where a forest above can thrive.
“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.”
Mountaintop removal takes off the ordinary topsoil upon which trees can gain root. What remains is a compacted rocky surface that is not usually suitable for reforestation within any reasonable period of time.
“CLEARING – Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not even used comercially in the rush to get the coal, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills.”
Extensive tracts of deciduous forests destroyed by mountaintop mining support several endangered species and some of the highest biodiversity in North America.
The huge trucks being driven in and out of coal mine sites are loud, disruptive, and polluting of the environment.
Burning CO2 emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source. It is, therefore, a major contributor to climate change.
“coal industry executives say the term ‘mountaintop development’ would paint a more accurate picture of the practice. ‘In my mind, mountaintop ‘removal’ implies the site is mined and then left barren, lifeless and flattened. This couldn’t be further from the truth,’ said Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association. […] [Hamilton says] Restoring the land occurs in about 90 percent to 95 percent of former surface mines […] ‘We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original premining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees,’ Hamilton said. ‘We also rebuild the drainage channels, putting in sediment and erosion-control structures to prevent potential downstream impacts.'”
Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said in 2010: “Restoring the land occurs in about 90 percent to 95 percent of former surface mines. We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original premining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees. We also rebuild the drainage channels, putting in sediment and erosion-control structures to prevent potential downstream impacts.”
Mining permits require companies to restore the mines to their approximate original contour or to configure the land for an ‘alternate use.’ They have to get an exemption of some kind in order to get around this. And while exemptions are offered, at the least the default requirement is restoration.
Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said iu 2010: “I love mountains as well. And I would point out that only 1 percent of the surface area of our state has been touched by surface mining. Some opponents of coal are prone to exaggeration…”
“Of all the environmental problems caused by mountaintop projects — decapitated peaks, deforestation, the significant carbon footprint — scientists have found that valley fills do the most damage because they destroy headwater streams and surrounding forests, which are crucial to the workings of mountain ecosystems.”
“PROCESSING — The coal is washed and treated before it is loaded on trains. The excess water left over from this process is called coal slurry or sludge and is stored in open coal impoundments. Coal sludge is a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. Impoundments are held in place by mining debris, making them very unstable.”
As valley fills obstruct the natural flow of water, redirect water in new directions, or create dams that can suddenly burst, they often result in the flooding of local communities as is often experienced in places like West Virginia.
“A distinction we try to make clear: a valley fill permit is not the same as a permit allowing the company to mine using mountaintop removal or any other mining method. Those permits are usually issued by the state. Valley fill, or “404” permits (referring to the section in the Clean Water Act), are issued by the Corps of Engineers. The EPA has overall responsibility for enforcement of the CWA, including some oversight authority over the Corps’ actions.” In other words, mountaintop removal does not inherently involve valley fills. Valley fills can be banned or avoided by coal companies without abandoning the practice of mountain top removal.
Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that a flyover of the southern West Virginia coalfields suggests little development on former surface mine sites. ‘If they’re hoping to, you know, create shopping malls on some of these, I don’t know where they’re going to get all the shoppers. All the communities around these areas have been driven away.” :: “Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that about 1.2 million acres and about 500 mountains were flattened by surface mining in central Appalachia. An aerial imagery analysis by NRDC found that about 90 percent of mountaintop removal sites were not converted to economic uses. Only about 4 percent of West Virginia and Kentucky mountaintops had been redeveloped, NRDC found. ‘We watch our Appalachian communities being destroyed every day with the false promise of reclamation,’ Lorelei Scarbro, with Coal River Mountain Watch, told NRDC. ‘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.'”
Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said that the notion that West Virginia needs more flat land is a myth. “Back in 2002 we had some volunteers create some maps for us. There were just massive amounts of land that are not, in any way, shape or form, developed.”
“HINDMAN, Ky. — A short drive up a side road through dense Appalachian forest ends at a vast, flat clearing where a mountaintop used to be. The peak that stood for an eon is gone, replaced by a giant recreation area that was built after a coal company scraped away thousands of tons of earth, lowering the mountain by 200 feet. Coal industry supporters say the Knott County Sportsplex in eastern Kentucky is one of many examples of economic opportunity created by strip mining techniques that include the often-vilified method known as mountaintop removal.”
West Virginia’s natural contours, as an example, are not necessarily the best for land development. The cost of reshaping that land for development makes many potential sites cost-prohibitive. Mountaintop removal is often the only economical way of doing this.
Proponents argue that in certain geologic areas, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow the only access to thin seams of coal that traditional underground mining would not be able to mine.
Depending on how deep or shallow and how narrowly coal is buried in a mountain, mountaintop removal is often the most economical means of extraction. Enabling such efficient extraction is important to keeping coal and electricity prices low, enabling the modern way of life.