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   WV 'Mountaintop Removal' Alarms Environmentalists


WV ‘Mountaintop Removal’ Alarms Environmentalists

by Albert Justice

The valuable bituminous coal in the central Appalachian coalfields has created one of the most conflict-ridden chapters of American history to date.

While surface coal mining has been riddled with controversy since its beginnings, and the region’s citizens have been partly successful in reining in the industry, a newer type of surface mining—Mountain Top Removal mining (MTR)—is becoming a nightmare for both environmentalists and affected citizens. It tears off the entire tops of mountains to get at the coal beneath.

Adding to the problem, in most cases coal companies wish to push much of the remaining “overburden”—the soil and rock removed from the mountaintops—into adjacent valleys, thereby destroying watersheds. Existing laws requiring returning the affected mountains to their approximate original contours are not being followed.

Environmentalists all the way out to the Chesapeake Bay are recognizing the tragic long-term effects this type of mining will have on eastern America’s fresh water supply. The region’s natural springs and fresh water supplies were disappearing even before the advent of this type of mining, perhaps as a result of the increased production effected by the mass mechanization of coal mining in general. Now, with MTR, the destructive processes are escalating.

The Appalachian Mountains are one of the two oldest mountain ranges on earth. They have never been fully explored geologically beyond investigations for extraction purposes. Phenomenal fossils and Neanderthal markings are not a rare occurrence in these mountains. Those of us who live in the region recognize the preciousness of these mountains. (Not surprisingly, elsewhere in the range, beyond central Appalachia, the belief is held: “Thank goodness we didn’t have coal.”)

The coal industry is mounting signficant public relations efforts in order to be able to continue not doing the right thing. One company recently put forth a public relations campaign focused on mining’s importance to education and, ironically, jobs. The truth is that our young people, including many families, have already left the broader affected region, seriously damaging our communities, and the number of mining jobs is continuously decreasing. This decrease is due to increased mechanization and the fact that MTR strip mining requires even fewer workers than surface mining.

Thousands upon thousands of acres of land have been destroyed by earlier types of strip-mining. If MTR continues, coal companies along with federal super-funds and state governments, should have to reclaim these earlier disasters, using the overburden from MTR. Yet this progressive reclamation possibility is not even being discussed.

Albert Justice writes from Charleston, WV.

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This story was published on March 5, 2003.
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