The Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest mountains in the world. Older than the majestic snow-capped Rockies or the Himalayas, their undulating forests stretching from Georgia to Maine have provided shelter and sustenance to humans for thousands of years.
But mountaintop removal (or MTR), a surface mining practice that blows up mountaintops to expose coal seams, is leveling many of these nearly 500 million-year-old landmarks and damaging America’s unique Appalachian culture in the process. In Southern West Virginia alone, 5% of the land was converted to mountaintop removal sites by 2005. The practice is also widespread in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The process begins when upper elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil. Then explosives are used to break up rocks to access buried coal. The leftover rock and debris produced by MTR is deposited in adjacent valleys, covering streams and contaminating them with heavy metals (1700 miles of streams in West Virginia are damaged according to a recent study). Although the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 requires mining companies to ‘reclaim’ the land, they usually plant grasses rather than the native vegetation necessary to the local ecosystem. The damage to the water supply and habitats is essentially permanent.
Only about 5% of coal in the U.S. comes from the mountaintop mining technique. Coal companies are adjusting to falling energy demand in the US by shipping more coal overseas–107 million tons in 2011 alone. Despite the fact that there isn’t much coal left to mine in the region via this method, more than 500 mountaintops have been destroyed.
Read more about Mountaintop Removal Mining on www.earthshare.org.