Assessing the human impacts of mountaintop removal mining

Mountaintop removal mining, a particularly destructive form of surface mining which involves literally blasting away the tops of mountains to get at the coal reserves below, has become the dominant land-use issue in central Appalachia, impacting vast areas of West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky.

Last month, the issue made national headlines when the Environmental Protection Agency revoked the permit for Arch Coal's proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia, one of the nation's largest mountaintop removal projects, citing the potential for irrevocable damage to rivers, wildlife, and communities.

mountains carpeted by trees
Credit photos.com

View of Appalachian mountain range in West Virginia.

Brad Woods, who recently received his Ph.D. at Penn State, grew up in Logan County, site of the 1921 coalfield uprising known as the Battle of Blair Mountain and also of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood, in which the failure of a coal-slurry dam resulted in 125 deaths. Woods himself comes from a long line of miners on both sides of his family. His dissertation looked at the human impacts of mountaintop removal.

Can you give a little bit of the history of this practice?

Mountaintop removal is essentially an evolution of strip mining. Some people refer to it as strip-mining on steroids.

aerial view of mountain-top mining site
Credit Vivian Stockman

Mountaintop removal mining has existed since the 1960s and became prevalent during the 1990s.

Strip mining is not new to the coalfields, but the scale and the impact of mountaintop removal are new. Technology kind of outpaced policy. Since the coalfields were unionized, miners have earned a really good wage, comparatively speaking. It became profitable for the coal industry to invest in capital-intensive extraction—investment in machinery as opposed to investment in miners. This technology continued to gain momentum until by around 1997, you had peak coal production in West Virginia—and also one of the lowest employment years on record. [Editor's note: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there were between 125,000 and 145,000 miners employed in West Virginia in the early 1950s; in 2004 there were just over 16,000. During that span, coal production has increased.]

Around the same time, a lawsuit was instituted to challenge mountaintop removal as a violation of the Clean Water Act. This went before a federal judge, Charles Hayden. It was a landmark decision that reaffirmed the strength of the Act and basically told the coal industry that mountaintop removal has to stop. But when the Bush administration came in, the E.P.A. redefined the term "fill material," so that it was no longer seen as waste under the Act. Mining was essentially provided an exemption. Companies could apply for what's called a 404 permit that allowed them to bury streams with this fill material.

Let's step back a minute. How does mountaintop removal work?

Coal seams in West Virginia run like a layer cake, with the coal as the icing. Instead of boring into the side of the mountain, as you would for underground mining, strip mining takes away all the timber, soil, rock—they call it "overburden"—from atop the coal seams. You're removing the layer of cake to get to the icing. In mountaintop removal that can mean taking off 500 feet or more of the summit.

They just push this overburden into the nearby valleys, creating what's called a valley fill, burying streams and everything else. Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, they're supposed to restore that land to the "approximate original contour," but there's an exemption if you identify an "equal or greater use." The coal industry has argued that it is providing flat land for business development as a greater use, but I have a data set from the West Virginia DEP of all mining permits granted since the early 1980s. Of all permitted mountaintop removal mines, only four or five have been designated for business development. There's no industry moving in. The predominant use was to let these areas revert to forestland or pastureland, which is also seen as "greater use."

head shot of Brad Woods
Photo provided

Brad Woods. His Ph.D. dissertation looked at the human impacts of mountaintop removal.

How did you get involved in researching this?

Central Appalachia, where I grew up, has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation. It has been plagued with low quality-of-life indicators across the board for generations. Having lived in the coalfields, seeing the poverty, seeing literally the profit being trucked away while so many people remain poor, this "paradox of plenty" was a real question for me.

There's been a lot of research done on this, but almost all of it has focused on environmental impacts. The human factors, community factors, have not really been considered. So I came up here to Penn State with that in mind.

For my dissertation I interviewed people in four different communities, two with traditional underground mining, and two with mountaintop removal. I did about 60 interviews total, looking at well-being and quality of life in Appalachian coalfield communities. After the interviews I administered a household survey in two of those communities.

Were there special challenges involved?

It was particularly difficult, even for me, being from that area and being able to draw on local resources, to quickly build a rapport to interview people in the mountaintop removal communities. Many people were reluctant to talk about it.

Communities tend to be polarized around this issue. There's a very real fear of losing jobs. And there are a lot of scare tactics used by politicians and the local media, and a tremendous amount of intimidation for people who don't support this process. For someone to speak out against it is almost inviting yourself to be ostracized from your community. It's really risky. The irony is that mountaintop removal actually means fewer jobs.

There were other things, too. I was doing an interview in one gentleman's home when they were blasting, sitting in his living room when a shot went off. It rattled the windows. I've lived in the coalfields—I had a stream in my backyard growing up that ran black—but I'd never been in anyone's home in that close a proximity to blasting.

What are some of your findings?

The impact of mining on communities is very much real, whether it be blackwater discharges, or leaking contaminants from sludge ponds—these are problems of underground mining, too. Specific to the mountaintop removal communities, the common themes were cracks in home walls and foundations from the blasting, damage to roads and highways, tremendous amounts of dust in the air, the loss of potable water. General property devaluation was a big issue.

aerial view of mountaintop mining site
Credit Vivian Stockman

Mountaintop removal coal mine in southern West Virginia adjacent to a small community.

In some of these mountaintop areas, Arch Coal had come in and paid people to leave. They paid them fair market value for their homes, but if you're sited for mountaintop removal nobody wants to move in there, so fair market value becomes almost nothing. These families were forced to sign a contract saying they would never move back into the area.

It's essentially a death sentence for these communities. There are some residents who remain, and now these places are riddled with drug abuse, vandalism, and other problems. There are huge problems with drug abuse, not just among the young. This is related to the depopulation, and lack of employment.

It came out in my findings too that mines do not like to hire from the local community. It wasn't uncommon to hear of somebody who drove from eastern Kentucky into West Virginia to work in a mine, even though they had a mine close to their home. These people don't have time to organize themselves, or to seek other forms of employment. They are less invested in their own communities.

What about health impacts?

A 2009 study out of West Virginia University showed an increased risk of mortality in coal-mining communities generally, both surface and underground mining. A study published last year in Science warned about polluted groundwater and hazardous dust specific to mountaintop removal. There's tons of anecdotal information coming out of the coalfields—seven-year-olds with cancer, communities where 30 percent of the people have a certain type of cancer. These are otherwise young healthy folks, and their only common link is being near mountaintop removal mines.

What is your take on the recent Spruce Mine decision?

First of all, the E.P.A. didn't come up with any new laws here, as some of the media are suggesting. They're just finally getting around to enforcing a law that's been on the books.

It has come out since that the agency expressed serious reservations from early on, tried to get Arch Coal to mitigate some of the impacts of this particular mine, but that Arch refused to change its plans. I think that at a certain point the company was willing to sacrifice the permit to catapult this issue into the national spotlight and accuse the E.P.A. of overreaching. I think it was a strategic move.

It's hard unless you've spent time in West Virginia to put into context how powerful the coal industry is there. The media and politicians are almost all pro-coal. The schools are paid for by the coal industry. To go up against that kind of power—it has to come from the outside. That's why what the E.P.A. has done is absolutely crucial. I don't know how it will play out. It's a real pivotal moment for Appalachia.

Bradley R. Woods, Ph.D., received his doctorate in rural sociology and human dimensions of natural resources and the environment at Penn State in May 2010. He is an ethics educator in the Office of Research Protections, and can be reached at brw150@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 15, 2011