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New Book on Mountaintop Removal: Bringing Down the Mountains
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by Shirley Stewart Burns | 2007

Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal Surface Coal Mining on Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970–2004

Coal is West Virginia’s bread and butter. For well over a century, West Virginia has answered the energy call of the nation—and the world—by mining and exporting its coal. In 2004, West Virginia’s coal industry provided nearly forty thousand jobs directly related to coal, and it contributed $3.5 billion to the state’s gross annual product. And in the same year, West Virginia led the nation in coal exports, shipping over 50 million tons of coal to twenty-three countries. Coal has made millionaires of some and paupers of many. For generations of honest, hardworking West Virginians, coal has put food on tables, built homes, and sent kids to college. But coal has also maimed, debilitated, and killed. For West Virginia’s underground coal miners, every day can be a waltz with danger and a prayer that death doesn’t cut in.

As the United States’ voracious appetite for an affordable, plentiful, domestic energy source accelerates on a daily basis, the pressure for the Mountain State to produce more and more coal likewise increases. The result has been the expansion of mountaintop removal (MTR) surface coal mining in the steep hills of southern West Virginia. An extreme version of strip mining, MTR blasts off the tops of mountains in order to reveal the coal seams near the surface. More productive than underground mining, MTR, nonetheless, is killing our mountains.

Although mountaintop removal has been practiced for nearly forty years, it did not really take off until the 1990s when a federal Clean Air Act amendment mandated more stringent emissions standards, thus increasing the demand for southern West Virginia’s low-sulfur, high-volatility coal. Throughout the 1980s, MTR permits were granted to cover 9,800 acres of West Virginia land. In 2002, permits covering 12,540 acres were granted in a nine-month period alone.

What’s been missing from this supply-and-demand equation behind West Virginia’s coal production is the environmental effects of mountaintop removal and its impact on the Mountain State’s people. MTR has ruined homes, increased the risk of flooding, endangered the lives of school children, forced friends and family members out of town, and turned hardwood forests into moonscapes. In some cases, entire neighborhoods have been obliterated. Likewise, MTR has caused a rift within the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Traditionally the consensus builder, defender, and unifier of miners, the UMWA’s allegiance is now torn between its union members working on MTR sites and the underground miners whose interests often conflict with those of surface workers. Politicians have vacillated between silence and protectionism. But the individuals whose lives have been ruined by MTR feel far less ambivalent about the matter: they want change.

Bringing Down the Mountains provides insight into how mountaintop removal has affected the people and the land of southern West Virginia. It examines the mechanization of the mining industry and the power relationships between coal interests, politicians, and the average citizen. Bringing Down the Mountains reveals how a political system married to natural-resource extraction turns a blind eye to the irrevocable disfigurement of the earth while thousands of West Virginians suffer the consequences.

West Virginia University Press | 1-866-WVU-PRESS |

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