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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Mayor Hobbs is Ansted's top tourism booster, a position he came to by a circuitous route. With no good prospects in town, he got a job in 1963 with C&P Telephone in Washington, D.C. Thirty years later, after a telecommunications career that took him to 40 states and various foreign countries, he returned to Ansted in one of AT&T's early work-from-home programs. He retired in 2000 and became mayor three years later, with ambitious tourism-development plans. "We're hoping to build a trail system to connect two national rivers together, and we'd be at the center of that—hunting, fishing, biking, hiking trails. The town has embraced that," Hobbs told me in his office, which is festooned with trail and park maps. What happens if the peak overlooking Ansted becomes even more of a mountaintop removal site? "A lot of this will be lost. 1961 is my reference point. [Coal companies] went away and left only a cloud of dust behind, and it's my fear that that's what will happen again with mountaintop removal."

Follow one of the old mining roads toward the top of Ansted's 2,500-foot ridge and the picturesque view changes startlingly. Once the road passes the crest, the mountain becomes an industrial zone. On the day that I visited, countless felled trees were scattered across a slope stripped clear by bulldozers. Such timber is sometimes sold, but the trees are more often burned—a practice that amplifies coal's considerable impact on air pollution and global warming, both by generating carbon dioxide and by eliminating living trees, which absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. Half a mile beyond that treeless slope, a mountain peak had been rendered like a carcass in a meat factory: its outermost rock layers had been blasted away, the remains dumped in nearby hollows, creating "valley fills." Heavy earth-moving equipment had scraped out the thin layers of coal. A broad outcropping of pale brown rock remained, scheduled for later demolition.

The scale of these projects is best appreciated from above, so I took a flight over the coal fields in a small plane provided by Southwings, a conservation-minded pilots' cooperative. The forest quickly gave way to one mining operation, then another—huge quarries scooped out of the hills. Some zones sprawl over dozens of square miles. Explosives were being set in one area. In another, diggers were scraping off layers of soil and rock—called "overburden"—on top of the coal. Trucks were carting rock and gravel to dump in adjacent valleys. Black, shimmering impoundments of sludge stretched along hillsides. Tanker trucks sprayed flattened hills with a mixture of grass seed and fertilizer, which would give rise to a sort of artificial prairie where forested peaks had been.

I've reported on devastation around the world—from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, to wars in Central America and the Middle East, to coastlines in Asia degraded by fish farming. But in the sheer audacity of its destruction, mountaintop coal removal is the most shocking thing I've ever seen. Entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone. Another day, as I walked near a site on Kayford Mountain, about 20 miles southwest of An-sted, along a dirt road owned by a citizen who declined to lease to the mining companies, a thunderous boom rattled the ground. A plume of yellow smoke rose into the sky, spread out and settled over me, giving the bare trees and the chasm beyond the eerie cast of a battlefield.

To an outsider, the process may seem violent and wasteful, with a yield that can equal only about 1 ton of coal per 16 tons of overburden. But it's effective. "With mountaintop removal you're able to mine seams that you could not mine with underground mining because they are so thin—but it's a very high-quality coal," said Roger Horton, a truck driver and United Mine Workers Union representative who works at a mountaintop site in Logan, West Virginia. Mountaintop operations can mine seams less than two feet deep. "No human being could burrow into a hole 18 inches thick and extract the coal," Horton said. Typically, he adds, a project descends through seven seams across 250 vertical feet before reaching a layer of the especially high-grade coal that is used (because of the extreme heat it generates) in steel manufacturing. After that's collected, it's on to the next peak.

The Appalachian coal fields date back about 300 million years, when today's green highlands were tropical coastal swamps. Over the millennia, the swamps swallowed up massive amounts of organic material—trees and leafy plants, animal carcasses, insects. There, sealed off from the oxygen essential to decomposition, the material congealed into layers of peat. When the world's landmasses later collided in a series of mega-crashes, the coastal plain was pushed upward to become the Appalachians; after the greatest of these collisions, they reached as high as today's Himalayas, only to be eroded over the ages. The sustained geologic pressure and heat involved in creating the mountains baked and compressed the peat from those old bogs into seams of coal from a few inches to several feet thick.

First mined in the 19th century, Appalachian coal dominated the U.S. market for 100 years. But the game changed in the 1970s, when mining operations started in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where coal seams are far thicker—up to 200 feet—and closer to the surface than anything in the East. It was in the West and Midwest where miners first employed some of the world's largest movable industrial equipment to scrape the earth. Behemoths called draglines can be more than 20 stories tall and use a scoop big enough to hold a dozen small cars. They are so heavy that no onboard power source could suffice—they tap directly into the electrical grid. Western mining operations achieved fantastic economies of scale, though Western coal has a lower energy content than Eastern coal and costs more to move to its principal customers, Midwestern and Eastern power plants.

Then, in 1990, Eastern coal mining, long in decline, got a boost from an unlikely source: the Clean Air Act, revised that year to restrict sulfur dioxide emissions, the cause of acid rain. As it happens, central Appalachia's coal deposits are low in sulfur. Soon the draglines arrived in the East and coal mining's effect on the landscape took an ugly turn. To be sure, Wyoming's open-pit coal mines aren't pretty, but their location in a remote, arid basin has minimized the impact on people and wildlife. By contrast, coal seams in Appalachia require extensive digging for a smaller yield. The resulting debris is dumped into nearby valleys, effectively doubling the area of impact. More people live near the mines. And the surrounding forests are biologically dense—home to a surprising abundance and variety of life-forms.

"We are sitting in the most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forest on the planet," said Ben Stout, a biologist at Wheeling Jesuit University, in West Virginia's northern panhandle. We were on a hillside a few miles from his office. "There are more kinds of organisms living in the southern Appalachians than in any other forest ecosystem in the world. We have more salamander species than any place on the planet. We have Neotropical migratory birds that come back here to rest and nest. They are flying back up here as they have over the eons. That relationship has evolved here because it's worth it to them to travel a couple of thousand miles to nest in this lush forest that can support their offspring in the next generation."

Stout has spent the past decade studying the effects of mining on ecosystems and communities. We waded into a chilly stream, about three feet across, that ran over stones and through clots of rotting leaves. He bent down and started pulling wet leaves apart, periodically flicking squirming bugs into a white plastic strainer he'd placed on a rock. Stoneflies were mating. A maggot tore through the layers of packed leaves. Other, smaller larvae were delicately peeling the outermost layer off one leaf at a time. This banquet, Stout said, is the first link in the food chain: "That's what drives this ecosystem. And what happens when you build a valley fill and bury this stream—you cut off that linkage between the forest and the stream."


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