April 21, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The front page of yesterday’s Washington Post provided a stark reminder of the cost of powering the DC region: a scarred and denuded landscape once graced by mountains and wildlife. Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) in West Virginia feeds coal-powered plants that have been demanding more and more of the fuel; in the DC area, demand for electricity grew 18% since 2001. The Post’s David A. Fahrenthold explains the process and its effects:

Starting in earnest in the 1980s, mining companies began extracting the region’s coal by removing the mountains on top of it. At these sites, the top 100 feet or more of a ridgeline is shaved of its trees, blasted with explosives and then scraped away by shoveling machines the size of small office buildings.

At some sites, the companies try to rebuild the silhouette of the old mountain. At others, often called “mountaintop removal” sites, they leave it roughly flat. At both kinds, companies often perform “valley fills,” in which tons of excess rock and dirt are dumped into nearby stream valleys.


“It just doesn’t seem real because of the way it used to be,” said Lucille Miller, looking out at the gravelly mesa that used to be Sugar Tree Mountain. In the 1960s, Miller said, she would walk on the hill and describe the trees and flowers to her father, who was blinded in a mining accident.

“This will never, ever be like that again,” she said. Nearby, the small creek where her siblings had played has been buried under rubble. Lucille Miller and her husband live in Mud part time.

Elsewhere, neighbors complain about flash floods bursting out of denuded mine sites and about explosions that can disrupt the water flowing from wells. “It starts off looking like orange juice, and then it starts looking like chili, and then you don’t have none,” said Barbara Chafin of Mingo County, W.Va.

Biologists say the effects can fall even harder on the environment, suffocating the life in Appalachian streams.

“It destroys the streams. I mean, it eradicates them. It’s dead. It’s gone,” said Margaret Palmer, head of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Residents concerned about MTR mining’s environmental effects face off against those who think the jobs are more important, and tensions are running high as an appeals court prepares to hear a case challenging the mines on environmental grounds.  Then, there are those who give a more puzzling rationale for supporting MTR:

“There’s one big reason you mountaintop mine. That’s where the good Lord put the coal,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. He said that about 70 percent of the coal from surface mines in this part of Appalachia originates at mountaintop mines.


“They don’t realize that that’s where they get their electricity from,” [a coal truck] driver said over the radio. “God gave us coal to mine, then, didn’t He?”

By this logic, we should also be digging up all the asbestos deposits and inhaling their pollution, too. But the coal truck driver’s first point is an important one: many of us use power from MTR-mined coal. If we’re horrified by the Post’s photos (gallery here), we should use less electricity and work to get it from better sources.

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