Flattening Appalachia

New mining techniques explode mountains and cause acres of land to collapse. The coal industry calls it economic development, and paid-off politicians agree.


This article is from the July/August 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the July/August 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Just after midnight on October 11, 2000, a Martin County Coal computer operator noticed a problem at Kentucky's largest "slurry impoundment"—one of the 200 waste reservoirs that catch the liquid run-off from Appalachian coal mines. The 2.2-billion-gallon impoundment was gushing black sludge into an underground mine, exploding its walls and sending the sludge back out into the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers. By the time workers stopped the leak, 300 million gallons of sludge had contaminated local water supplies and killed much of the aquatic life in nearby waterways. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was a miracle that no human life was lost in the flood.

The Martin County sludge disaster was the nation's worst-ever black water spill, with a volume 22 times that of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But it is just one of a series of environmental crises produced by new mining technologies on the rise since the 1990s: mountaintop removal and longwall mining.

As the name suggests, mountaintop removal uses enormous explosive power to blast the top off a mountain—sometimes the top 1,000 feet of a 3,000-foot peak. The rubble, or "overburden," is dumped into adjacent streams and valleys, diverting water flows, wreaking havoc on ecosystems, and exacerbating floods. Afterwards, the barren, rocky landscapes cannot absorb rain, so coal companies contain liquid run-off with structures—dams, sediment ponds, drainage ditches, and slurry impoundments—that can poison communities when they leak or overflow.

In states like Pennsylvania, another new technique called "longwall mining" removes entire seams of underground coal, causing what companies euphemistically term "a gentle lowering of the earth"—or what residents describe as man-made earthquakes. As coal companies hollow out tunnels up to 1,000 feet wide and two miles long, the earth above commonly sinks as much as four feet, damaging buildings, roads, streams, and wetlands. "Our first loss was our spring," explained Laurine Williams, whose Pennsylvania farm was damaged by longwall mining. "After many years of supplying excellent water for the house, our spring went dry when all of the wells down the valley went dry." Williams' pasture developed cracks 15 feet long and nearly three feet wide. "We couldn't tell how deep," she said, "because they appeared to be bottomless."

Today, longwall mining accounts for nearly 60% of Pennsylvania's coal production, and bears significant responsibility for the state's 2,500 miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage. Meanwhile, mountaintop removal has buried at least 750 miles of West Virginia's streams and destroyed 300,000 acres of hardwood forest. Some Appalachian counties have seen 20% of their landmass exploded, while coal companies place few if any limits on future "removals": in Whitesville, West Virginia, planned blast sites overlook elementary and high schools.


These exceptionally destructive mining techniques have become the strategies of choice in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania for a simple reason: they are the only profitable ways to mine dwindling, hard-to-reach coal reserves. By the industry's own estimates, at the current rate of production, West Virginia's coal may be gone in as few as 26 years. The long-term depletion of coal means that many companies are now scraping out seams once considered inaccessible or unprofitable.

The only way to mine these areas and turn a profit, the companies have found, is to eliminate the workers—and that is what mountaintop removal and longwall mining do. In West Virginia, the state most ravaged by mountaintop removal, these operations employ just 2,000 people; the state's total employment in mining has fallen from 100,000 in the late 1940s to 15,700 in 2000. Techniques that may simply be too dangerous to involve a lot of human beings—like blowing up mountains—are also incredibly efficient at extracting coal without them. In 2000, coal companies mined 170 million tons from West Virginia's mountains. Between 1983 and 1998, as Pennsylvania replaced most traditional underground mining with longwall mining, the state's coal production increased by 64% while the number of coal miners fell by 81%.

Of course, when coal companies publicly promote these techniques, they don't say that they're desperate to cut costs and are willing to wreck the environment to do it. "They say the flattened, remote areas [left by blasts] are great spots for developing jails, shopping malls, airports and schools," writes Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a group fighting mountaintop removal. Hydrogeologist and activist Rick Eades examined companies' claims that mining would promote economic development, and according to Stockman, he concluded that at the current rate of development, "it would take 3,700 years to develop the rest of the permitted mountaintop removal sites."

While the companies promise lowroad economic development in the future, Stockman points to the current economic reality. "The counties with a lot of mountaintop removal are some of the poorest in an already poor state, with lousy schools and roads," she notes. "But that's King Coal's 'prosperity' for you."


Although most people living near mines have not profited from them, state and national politicians have. The coal industry gave $3.9 million in political contributions during the 2000 election cycle. In West Virginia, coal companies donated $115,600 to Democratic Governor Bob Wise's campaign, and another $120,340 to cover 20% of the cost of his inauguration. In return for their regular payments, coal companies have enjoyed near-immunity from state and federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, streams and wetlands are protected by environmental regulations that are supposed to apply equally to mining and other industries. Yet according to Stephen Kunz, an ecologist who studies longwall mining, "Information routinely produced for applications for housing, shopping centers, highways, utilities, and other kinds of construction or development is not being required during the review of coal mine applications." The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does not demand resource inventories, impact assessments, or procedures for monitoring and mitigating environmental damage. As Kunz explains, the DEP "acts more like a Department of Energy Production."

In West Virginia, the DEP issued a 2001 permit for Massey Energy—whose subsidiary, Martin, spilled the 300 million gallons in Kentucky—to build a 5-billion-gallon slurry disposal at the headwater of the Coal River. When the federal Surface Mine Board heard a citizen appeal on June 26, DEP officials didn't show, and evaded subpoenas by fleeing their offices. Thanks to such maneuvers, Massey has become the sixth-largest coal producer in the United States, collecting $32 million in profits during 2002.

As Massey board member James H. "Buck" Harless explains, it's not just state agencies that are helping the coal industry. "We were looking for friends," he told the Wall Street Journal in 2001, "and we found one in George W. Bush." The Bush energy plan suggests using executive orders of the president to speed energy production and power line construction; in fact, when he released the plan, Bush signed one such order requiring federal agencies to "fast track" permit approvals for coal-fired power plants.

Dollar for dollar, the Bush administration has given the coal industry excellent returns on its election-year investment. In exchange for $3.4 million in coal contributions to the GOP in 2000, the Bush administration allotted $2 billion over 10 years to the "Clean Coal Technology Program," a research initiative undertaken with the coal industry to make the dirtiest of all fuels "clean." The result: in February 2003, Bush released his "Clear Skies Plan," which proposes no reduction in mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from coal, and if implemented, will be less effective than simply enforcing the Clean Air Act. While spearheading all this "research," the Bush administration also had time to knock down key provisions of the Clean Water Act which banned companies from dumping mountaintop removal waste into waterways. Today, not only can companies legally destroy wetlands and streams, but the Bush administration's new permitting procedures allow them to do so with no public notice and minimal review by federal authorities.

The withering of state and federal regulations is ultimately the reason that mountaintop removal and longwall mining are considered efficient, inexpensive techniques. Today, coal is the cheapest fossil fuel per unit of energy, and produces more than half the country's electricity. But that is only because coal companies have pushed intolerable costs onto mining communities and the larger public. When the coal industry does not pay for destroyed infrastructure and ecosystems, mining communities do—either in cash or in ravaged landscapes and devastated local economies. Outside Appalachia, coal produces low-cost electricity, but also one-third of the country's mercury and carbon dioxide emissions—essentially forcing Americans to pay for electricity with their health. These are tremendous costs to pay for anything, and incomprehensible sacrifices to make for corporate profits. If the coal industry were held responsible for the true cost of coal, it would become a very expensive fuel—and coal companies might have to start peddling solar panels.

Chris Sturr is a member of the Dollars & Sense collective. Amy Offner is a Dollars & Sense co-editor.

RESOURCES: Coal Age, <www.coalage.com>; Stephen Kunz, "Wetlands and Longwall Mining," <http://www.rayproffitt.org/longwall/longwall.htm>; National Mining Association "2002 Coal Producer Survey," <www.nma.org>; National Resources Defense Council, "The Bush Record," <www.nrdc.org>; Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, <www.ohvec.org>; Sierra Club, Pennsylvania Chapter, Coal and its Consequences, (Summer 2001).