Mining the Mountains

Explosives and giant machines are destroying Appalachian peaks to obtain coal. In a tiny West Virginia town, residents and the industry fight over a mountain’s fate

Mountain operations, like the Hobet 21 mine near Danville, West Virginia, yield one ton of coal for every 16 tons of terrain displaced. (Paul Corbit Brown)
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Editor's Note -- On April 1, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released new guidelines on mountaintop mining. For more on this update, check out our Surprising Science blog.

For most of its route through the hardscrabble towns of West Virginia's central Appalachian highlands, U.S. Highway 60 follows riverbanks and valleys. But as it approaches Gauley Mountain, it swoops dramatically upward, making switchbacks over steep wooded ridges. It goes by the Mystery Hole, a kitschy tourist stop that claims to defy the law of gravity. Then the road abruptly straightens and you're in Ansted, a town of about 1,600 people. There's an auto dealership, an Episcopal church and a Tudor's Biscuit World restaurant. A historical marker notes that Stonewall Jackson's mother is buried in the local cemetery, and there's a preserved antebellum mansion called Contentment.

The tranquillity belies Ansted's rough-and-tumble history as a coal town—and the conflict now dividing its townspeople. Founded as a mining camp in the 1870s by English geologist David T. Ansted, the first person to discover coal in the surrounding mountains, it played an important part in the Appalachian coal economy for nearly a century. The coal baron William Nelson Page made Ansted his headquarters. You get a feeling for the old connection to coal in the one-room town museum behind the storefront that serves as the town's city hall, with its vintage mining helmets and pickaxes, company scrip and photographs of dust-covered miners. But beginning in the 1950s, the boom ended, and one by one the mine shafts closed, leaving most of the local populace feeling bitter and abandoned.

"They burned the buildings down and left the area," Mayor R. A. "Pete" Hobbs recalled of the coal companies' abrupt departure. "Unemployment when I graduated high school"—in 1961—"was 27 percent."

Now coal is back, with a different approach: demolishing mountains instead of drilling into them, a method known as mountaintop coal removal. One project is dismantling the backside of Gauley Mountain, the town's signature topographical feature, methodically blasting it apart layer by layer and trucking off the coal to generate electricity and forge steel. Gauley is fast becoming a kind of Potemkin peak—whole on one side, hollowed out on the other. Some Ansted residents support the project, but in a twist of local history, many people, former miners included, oppose it, making the town an improbable battleground in the struggle to meet the nation's rising energy needs.

Since the mid-1990s, coal companies have pulverized Appalachian mountaintops in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Peaks formed hundreds of millions of years ago are obliterated in months. Forests that survived the last ice age are chopped down and burned. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2012, two decades of mountaintop removal will have destroyed or degraded 11.5 percent of the forests in those four states, an area larger than Delaware. Rubble and waste will have buried more than 1,000 miles of streams.

This is devastation on an astonishing scale, and though many of us would like to distance ourselves from it, blaming it on others' callousness or excesses, mountaintop coal removal feeds the global energy economy in which we all participate. Even as I was writing this article at home in suburban Washington, D.C., it occurred to me that the glowing letters on my laptop might be traceable to mountaintop removal. An EPA Web site indicates that utlities serving my ZIP code get 48 percent of their power from coal—as it happens, the same portion of coal-generated electricity nationwide. In fact, the environmental group Appalachian Voices produced a map indicating 11 direct connections between West Virginia mountaintop coal sources and electric power plants in my area, the closest being the Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria, Virginia. So coal torn from a West Virginia mountain was put on a truck and then a rail car, which took it to Alexandria, where it was incinerated, creating the heat that drove the turbines that generated the electricity that enabled me to document concerns about the destruction of that very same American landscape.

Demand for mountaintop coal has been rising quickly, driven by high oil prices, energy-intensive lifestyles in the United States and elsewhere and hungry economies in China and India. The price of central Appalachian coal has nearly tripled since 2006 (the long-term effect on coal pricing of the latest global economic downturn isn't yet known). U.S. coal exports increased by 19 percent in 2007 and were expected to go up by 43 percent in 2008. Virginia-based Massey Energy, responsible for many of Appalachia's mountaintop projects, recently announced plans to sell more coal to China. As demand increases, so does mountaintop removal, the most efficient and most profitable form of coal mining. In West Virginia, mountaintop removal and other kinds of surface mining (including highwall mining, in which machines demolish mountainsides but leave peaks intact) accounted for about 42 percent of all coal extracted in 2007, up from 31 percent a decade earlier.

Whether demand for coal will grow or shrink in the Barack Obama administration remains to be seen; as a candidate, Obama backed investing in "clean coal" technology, which would capture air pollutants from burning coal—especially carbon dioxide, linked to global warming. But such technologies are still experimental, and some experts believe they are unworkable. Former Vice President Al Gore, writing in the New York Times after the November election, said the coal industry's promotion of "clean coal" was a "cynical and self-interested illusion."

In Ansted, the conflict over mountaintop removal has taken on special urgency because it's about two competing visions for Appalachia's future: coal mining, West Virginia's most hallowed industry, and tourism, its most promising emerging business, which is growing at about three times the rate of the mining industry statewide. The town and its mining site lie between two National Park Service recreational areas, along the Gauley and New rivers, about ten miles apart. The New River Gorge Bridge, a span 900 feet above the water and perhaps West Virginia's best-known landmark, is just 11 miles by car from Ansted. Hawks Nest State Park is nearby. Rafting, camping—and, one day a year, parachuting from the New River Bridge—draw hundreds of thousands of people to the area annually.


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