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Taking the tops off mountains at the flip of a switch
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by Jea Yoon Lee | 2008

It's a vicious cycle: more mountaintop removal mining leads to more coal burning, which diverts resources from green energy sources and increases reliance on coal-powered powerplants.

Everyone knows that electricity comes from power plants. Some know that 40% of the electricity in the U.S. comes from coal-fired plants. Fewer know that an estimated 7-10% of the country’s total coal production comes from mountaintop removal (MTR) mines in Appalachia. Unfortunately, many West Virginia consumers are linked to MTR through their utility companies which use MTR coal.

First developed around the 1970’s with the innovation of massive dragline equipment, MTR is a method of coal mining which entails razing the tops of mountains with dynamite to reach the thin seams of coal buried underneath, and then dumping the crushed remains of the land into valleys. MTR is the cheapest method for coal companies because it is speedy and requires fewer employees than underground mining. The exponential growth of Americans’ energy consumption and the rising demand for low-sulfur bituminous coal found in central Appalachia has led to increased MTR mining in the past decade. So far, MTR has destroyed over 800 square miles of mountains and 1,200 miles of streams across Appalachia, according to the EPA’s 2005 Environmental Impact Statement.

The tragedy of MTR is not just the abstract notion of “losing” mountains, forests, and streams, however. For Virginians, West Virginians, Kentuckians, and Tennesseans living near the mines, it means undrinkable, rash-inducing water full of arsenic and mercury, flying boulders and earthquakes caused by the blasting, and dramatic depreciation of property value. They also live in the shadow of impoundments — dams which hold back the wastewater created by washing the debris off coal. Eight years ago in Kentucky, one broke and released a torrent of over 300 million gallons of thick, toxic sludge which destroyed homes, farmlands, and 100 miles of waterways.

More MTR leads to burning more coal, which diverts resources away from alternative energy sources and greater reliance on coal-powered plants, which leads to even more MTR. That means dirtier air, more acid rain, and more global warming emissions.

According to some estimates, as much as 18% of the coal used in West Virginia power plants may come from MTR mines. Utilities such as Appalachian Power, Monongahela, and Potomac Edison are all connected to MTR mining because some of their plants purchase coal from companies that operate MTR mines in Appalachia. Four plants in Harrison, Kanawha, Mason, and Putnam Counties purchase coal directly from MTR mines. (For more information on your community’s connection to MTR, visit

Rising gas prices opens the prospect of a coal-to-liquid industry which would lead to an even greater reliance on coal. The coal industry is peddling the false solution of converting coal into liquid fuel, but the reality is worse than being topless in Appalachia. Not only does it take one ton of coal to produce just two barrels of fuel, but burning liquid coal also releases double the global warming emissions per gallon as regular gasoline. Replacing 10% of our nation’s transportation fuels with liquid coal would require increasing coal mining by over 40%.

Coal is not the solution! Currently there are plans for constructing 87 new coal power plants, each with an expected lifespan of 50 years. Is an additional 50 years of reliance on coal even a viable option for our planet? Let us oppose the irreversible, irremediable practice of MTR, and instead invest in solar, wind, and geothermal power.

MTR requires filling valleys with vast quantities of mining waste. Filling streams with waste was illegal under the Clean Water Act, and advocacy groups used the law to protect the mountains and streams. Rising to the defense of coal companies, the Bush Administration changed the rules, effectively legalizing the filling of streams with waste. Sierra Club and other groups are urging Congress to enact the Clean Water Protection Act, which would reverse the rule change, once again prohibiting the filling of streams with MTR waste. Please join our efforts by asking your utility company not to use MTR coal and urging your Representative to co-sponsor the bill For more information on how you can help, visit

Jea Yoon Lee is an apprentice with the Club's National Coal Campaign in Washington, DC.

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