It’s long been known that mountaintop removal mining, which involves blasting the tops off of mountains to get to coal underneath the surface, is a highly destructive process. But just how much the practice has altered the landscape of Appalachia hasn’t been quantified — until now.
This week, researchers from Duke University published a study on how mountaintop removal mining is drastically changing the landscape in Appalachia, making some regions 40 percent flatter than they were before. The study, which focused on southern West Virginia, found that since the practice began in the 1970s, mountaintop removal mining has lowered the median slope — or steepness — of affected mountains by nearly 10 degrees. It’s also increased the elevation of affected landscapes by 3 meters (about 10 feet), due to valley fills — the practice of dumping the excess rock, dirt, and other waste created by the mountain blasts into valleys.
The study, which includes an app that displays how different parts of West Virginia have been affected by the practice, is the first to look at the impacts on mountaintop removal on a three-dimensional scale; past studies had only examined the area of land impacted by the practice. That research “had really done a good job of mapping the spacial extent of mining,” said Matthew Ross, a PhD student at Duke University and lead author of the study.
“But mining is not just an impact that happens in space — it happens in depth. So we started to look for ways to assess spacial footprint but also topographic.”
CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Matthew Ross, Duke University
The impact of mountaintop removal is so extreme, the study states, it shouldn’t be compared to other two-dimensional disturbances like deforestation. However destructive deforestation is to an ecosystem, it doesn’t reach the level of decimation of mountaintop removal.
“The physical effects of mountaintop mining are much more similar to volcanic eruptions, where the entire landscape is fractured, deepened, and decoupled from prior landscape evolution trajectories, effectively resetting the clock on landscape and ecosystem coevolution,” the report reads.
Mountaintop removal “completely resets the geomorphology of the landscape, and how that landscape will be shaped into future,” Ross said. Mountains that have been blasted apart have different erosion processes as they did before. The process often creates flat plateaus that are out of place among the rest of the Appalachian peaks, and which aren’t hospitable for forest regrowth — they often become grassy, instead of reverting back to forested landscape.
The study estimates that, “in southern West Virginia, more than 6.4 km3 of bedrock has been broken apart and deposited into 1,544 headwater valley fills.” That volume of rock would bury Manhattan, Ross said. Some of the fills, Ross explained in a press release, “are the size of an Olympic swimming pool, while others are the size of 10,000 Olympic swimming pools.
“We’re only estimating the amount [coal companies] dump into valleys, but they also rebuild ridges with same rock,” he added. “Those numbers sort of baffled me when you put in context with natural processes and also human earth-moving processes.”
Coal companies must get permits for valley fills, but the method of disposing waste does still happen in mountaintop removal operations. The practice buries any waterways in the valley, destroying aquatic life. As Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II wrote in a 1999 ruling on valley fills, “the normal flow and gradient of the stream is now buried under millions of cubic yards of excess spoil waste material, an extremely adverse effect. If there are fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration.”
The mining waste that’s dumped in the valleys often contains selenium and heavy metals, which can negatively impact waterways downstream of the mining operation.
“A poorly-designed mining site can cause pollution problems downstream for decades,” said Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices.
There is some progress being made to protect streams from the practice — the Interior Department, for instance, is currently working to finalize the Stream Protection Rule. The rule seeks to update mining regulations written in the 1980s, and will protect about 6,500 miles of streams across the United States. It would require coal companies to more closely monitor stream health, mandate that companies restore streams and land affected by mining to a condition near what they were before mining, and would identify the riskiest mining practices for drinking water and streams. The rule isn’t perfect, however, and some groups say it doesn’t go far enough to protect ecosystems from mountaintop removal.
Ross and his team, meanwhile, are working on a study that seeks to quantify how valley fills impact water quality in Appalachia.
Mountaintop removal has been declining in Appalachian states — including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia — in recent years. But much of this decline has to do with competition from cheap natural gas, which is contributing to an overall decline in Appalachian’s coal industry. And coal companies are still applying for new mountaintop removal mining permits, Wasson said.
“If natural gas prices stayed where they are, then this wouldn’t be a big deal. They’re not going to stay that low. If those prices doubled a year from now, we could see a lot more mountaintop removal happening — that’s why they want these permits,” Wasson said. “Looking at the declining production numbers for mountaintop removal coal could easily lead you to a false sense of security.”