Climate

Mountaintop Removal Is Encroaching On Communities In Appalachia

CREDIT: AP/Maria Gunnoe, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In this June 2010 aerial photo released Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 by Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, mining equipment is seen on a mountain top near a cemetery is inside the forested area on that tiny knob of land in the middle of the mine complex.

The rate of mountaintop removal mining may have slowed in the U.S., but the practice is still encroaching on many Appalachian communities, according to a new report.

The report, published Tuesday by environmental group Appalachian Voices, mapped the communities in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia that have been located near a mountaintop removal operation at any time over the last 30 years. The report highlighted 50 communities that have “seen the greatest recent encroachment of large-scale mining activities,” finding that 23 — or nearly half — of those communities are located in West Virginia, a state that had a particularly high rate of mountaintop removal mining in 2014.

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CREDIT: Appalachian Voices

These communities are dealing with higher rates of poverty and population loss than communities that aren’t located near mining operations, the report found.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining that involves blasting off the tops of mountains to get to the coal underneath. The method is considered the most destructive way to extract coal, as the mining operations can blast away up to 400 vertical feet off a mountain’s summit, a blast that, along with the coal processing that follows, creates a large amount of waste. A form of waste disposal called valley fills — in which the debris is dumped into valleys, destroying streams and killing aquatic life — alsostill sometimes occurs in mining operations.

The actual blasts destroy ecosystems too — according to Appalachian Voices, mountaintop removal has destroyed more than 500 mountains so far in central and southern Appalachia, and has impacted ecosystems that are rich in biological diversity.

But in recent years, mountaintop removal has been on the decline in the U.S. — according to the report, surface mining methods, including mountaintop removal, have fallen by nearly 60 percent in Appalachia since 2008. That’s partially because coal production in general has been declining in recent years: in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia was down 20 percent from 1997’s peak regional production, and Kentucky and West Virginia have lost 38,000 coal jobs since 1983. Some of Appalachia’s coal basins are running out, and competition from natural gas and cheaper coal in the western U.S. has contributed to this decline.

Still, mountaintop removal remains in Appalachia, and many communities are still feeling its impacts, the report notes. Ben Hooper, who lives in Inman, Virginia — a town located within 320 feet of a mountaintop removal operation that’s one of the report’s 50 communities at risk — said in a conference call about the report Tuesday that he’s dealt with mountaintop removal for years. He said he remembered boulders “the size of cars” coming off the nearby mountain, and that one of the boulders killed a young girl in 2004.

“People’s houses were getting damaged from the blasting. This blasting was severe,” he said. “No one should have to live in that kind of fear for their children, for their air.”

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CREDIT: Appalachian Voices

Dust from mountaintop removal operations has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer when breathed over an extended period of time. Mountaintop removal can also contaminate water of nearby residents, an impact that has prompted affected residents to call on the White House to implement more protections for communities nearby mountaintop removal operations.

“We think the Obama administration should make this one of his legacies — protecting Appalachian water,” Ann League, a member of the Alliance for Appalachia, told ThinkProgress last year. “It’s one of the things he mentioned in his campaign in 2008 — that mountains should not be blown up to get to the coal below — and we want him to follow through on that.”

Matt Wasson, program director for Appalachian voices, said on the press call that though some of the administration’s policies have helped “reign in” the damage caused by mountaintop removal mining, more needs to be done.

“These are places where a lot of coal is being mined for metallurgical purposes and sent overseas to make steel,” he said, referring to the communities most impacted by mountaintop removal. “The best climate policy in the world isn’t going to change that. We still need to see action from the White House to protect communities.”