Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

In October 2010 I traveled to eastern Kentucky to learn about the effects of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining on the community.  We were fortunate to be able to tour an ICG coal mine in Hazard, KY, and to meet with some prominent opponents of MTR, including Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, and Erik Reece, author of “Lost Mountain.”  Most of the community clearly supported coal mining, but a vocal minority of opponents included people like Beverly May who had to fight coal companies to save their homes.  After saving her neighborhood from MTR coal mining, Beverly became an activist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and was featured in the documentary “Deep Down.”  Her story made me wonder if coal supporters would become opponents like Beverly if coal companies threatened their homes.  Why are people willing to let corporations destroy their neighbors homes and write it off as “progress?”
The devastating effects of MTR mining became apparent when we toured the property of Daymon Morgan, an army veteran who has been fighting for decades to prevent a coal company from destroying his land. Because he is too old to walk through his forested backyard, he hopped in his ATV to take us for a tour.  He showed us the herbs and trees that grow in the wild.  Then he took us over the ridge to see his neighbor’s property: it was a bald patch of rock and dirt, with rubble strewn along its length.  The contrast between the beauty of Daymon’s forest and the horror of the coal mine was so overwhelming that a student started crying.
Traveling through Hazard, KY made me realize the scale of MTR mining.  When I started teaching Geology, I would tell amazed students that the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens blew 1300 feet of rock from its top. In Hazard alone I must have seen ten mountains that had that much rock removed from their tops.  Humans have exceeded nature in destructive capacity.
Perhaps we could live with MTR mining if coal companies returned mine tailings to their original location at the top of the mountain rather than dumping them into stream valleys where they contaminate the water.  If coal companies restored the land surface to its “approximate original contour” and then replaced the soil and planted new trees, the environmental and aesthetic objections would mostly disappear.  However, coal companies insist on using the cheapest mining methods, and don’t view “restoring the land” as part of their job.  Thus, they continue to turn much of Appalachia, one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen, into a wasteland.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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