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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Normally, he went on, "those insects are going to fly back into the woods as adults, and everybody in the woods is going to eat them. And that happens in April and May, at the same time you have the breeding birds coming back, the same time the turtles and toads are starting to breed. Everything is coming back in around the stream because that's a tremendously valuable food source."

But a stream buried beneath a valley fill no longer supports such life, and the effects reverberate through the forest. A recent EPA study showed that mayflies—among the most fecund insects in the forest—had largely disappeared from waterways downstream from mountaintop mining sites. That might seem a small loss, but it's an early, critical break in the food chain that, sooner or later, will affect many other animals.

Mountaintop mining operations, ecologists say, fracture the natural spaces that enable dense webs of life to flourish, leaving smaller "islands" of unspoiled territory. Those become biologically impoverished as native plants and animals die and invasive species move in. In one study, EPA and U.S. Geological Survey scientists who analyzed satellite images of a 19-county area in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia found that "edge" forests were replacing denser, greener "interior" forests far beyond the mountaintop mining-site borders, degrading ecosystems across a wider area than previously thought. Wildlife is in decline. For instance, cerulean warblers, migratory songbirds that favor Appalachian ridgelines for nesting sites, have dropped 82 percent over the past 40 years.

The mining industry maintains that former mining sites can be developed commercially. The law requires that the mining company restore the mountaintop's "approximate original contour" and that it revert to forestland or a "higher and better use." A company can get an exemption from the rebuilding requirement if it shows that a flattened mountain may generate that higher value.

Typically, mining companies bulldoze a site and plant it with a fast-growing Asian grass to prevent erosion. One former surface mine in West Virginia is now the site of a state prison; another is a golf course. But many reclaimed sites are now empty pasturelands. "Miners have claimed that returning forestland to hay land, wildlife habitat or grassland with a few woody shrubs on it was ‘higher use,'" says Jim Burger, a professor of forestry at Virginia Tech. "But hay land and grassland is almost never used for that [economic] purpose, and even wildlife habitat has been abandoned."

Some coal companies do rebuild mountains and replant forests—a painstaking process that takes up to 15 years. Rocky Hackworth, the superintendent of the Four Mile Mine in Kanawha County, West Virginia, took me on a tour of rebuilding efforts he oversees. We climbed into his pickup truck and rolled across the site, past an active mine where half a hillside had been scooped out. Then the twisting dirt road entered an area that was neither mine nor forest. Valley fills and new hilltops of crushed rock had been covered with topsoil or "topsoil substitute"—crushed shale that can support tree roots if loosely packed. Some slopes had grass and shrubs, others were thick with young sumacs, poplars, sugar maples, white pines and elms.

This type of reclamation requires a degree of stewardship many mine companies have not provided, and its long-term ecological impact isn't clear, especially given the stream disruptions caused by valley fills. And it still faces regulatory hurdles. "The old mind-set is, we've got to control erosion first," Hackworth said. "So that's why they want it walked real good, packed real good. You plant grass on it—which is better for controlling erosion, but it's worse for tree growth. It's a Catch-22."

Some landowners have made stabs at creating wildlife habitats at reclaimed sites with pools of water. "The small ponds are marketed to the regulatory agencies as wildlife habitat, and ducks and waterfowl do come in and use that water," said Orie Loucks, a retired professor of ecology at Miami University of Ohio who has studied the effects of mountaintop removal. "It's somewhat enriched in acids, and, of course, a lot of toxic metals go into solution in the presence of [such] water. So it's not clear the habitat is very healthy for wildlife and it's not clear many people go up on these plateau areas to hunt ducks in the fall."

Mountaintop mining waste contains chemical compounds that otherwise remain sealed up in coal and rock. Rainwater falling on a valley fill becomes enriched with heavy metals such as lead, aluminum, chromium, manganese and selenium. Typically, coal companies construct filtration ponds to capture sediments and valley-fill runoff. But the water flowing out of these ponds isn't pristine, and some metals inevitably end up flowing downstream, contaminating water sources.

Mountaintop sites also create slurry ponds—artificial lakes that hold the byproducts of coal processing and that sometimes fail. In 2000, a slurry impoundment in Kentucky leaked into an underground mine and from there onto hillsides, where it enveloped yards and homes and spread into nearby creekbeds, killing fish and other aquatic life and contaminating drinking water. The EPA ranked the incident, involving more than 300 million gallons of coal slurry, one of the worst environmental disasters in the southeastern United States. After a months-long cleanup, federal and state agencies fined the impoundment owner, Martin County Coal, millions of dollars and ordered it to close and reclaim the site. Officials at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration later conceded that their procedures for approving such sites had been lax.


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