Describing the Devastation of Mountaintop Mining

As a lawyer, I've written about environmental harms quite often. Yet as I recently flew over several of the larger mountaintop mines in eastern Kentucky, I struggled to find the words to describe the devastation. The scars where trees, topsoil and many feet of unwanted rock have been ripped off, leaving barren rubble behind. The dams at the head of the valleys (known locally as "hollows") that fill the steep valleys with the rubble and other fill. Unnaturally colored ponds sitting behind the dams.

I visited eastern Kentucky at the invitation of Marianne, a friend from school, and her husband Jim. While there, we met many people engaged in fighting mountaintop removal and took an air tour of the mining sites. Appropriately enough, after our tour, we landed at Wendell Ford airport, the site of a former mountaintop mine now turned into a flat table where a steep mountain had once been. Greeting us at the airport were posters claiming that "coal is the future," with photos that can only be described as Orwellian:

  • Before: a mountain, looking barren and useless.
  • During: big trucks and bulldozers, implying jobs.
  • After: animals and grasses and specific claims that reclamation of mined areas "improves" the land.

The lie represented by those photos was seen clearly from the air where all we could see for miles was barren rock, not fertile productive farms. Rick, who has lived in the area his entire life, told us that there are no animals in mined areas. Animals, he explained, need nuts to last through the winter. Nuts obviously come from trees and the biggest piece missing from these lands are trees.

Truman, another life long resident of the area, put it simply: "Trees don't grow in rock rubble."

Another area resident showed us where coal companies, rushing to mine before the end of the Bush Administration, pushed over all the trees, further devastating the landscape without any regard for logging income and jobs that would be lost.

I asked our companions why so few people complain about the mines destroying their water supplies, covering their houses with toxic dust and cracking their foundations with blasting?

Carl, a third-generation miner now retired, says he's speaking out and many people tell him privately that they agree, but can't speak publicly because a family member has a job with a mine and would lose it if they did. "It's the only way to support their families now; that's why we need some wind farms and other energy sources around here," he said.

Yes, indeed. Renewable energy is part of the answer. So is energy efficiency - I did not see one compact fluorescent bulb in or on any of the houses or buildings in the hollows. We also need to cap carbon and make coal pay its true price so that clean energy can compete with it. NRDC will be working on all of that.

Oh, and we found out that the coal ash that caused the big spill in Tennessee at the TVA Kingston plant came from the very hollow - Montgomery Creek - that we visited. The coal destroyed one community when it was dug up and another when it was dumped.

Seems so last 18th century. I know that a 21st century technology and policy can do better. Working with the new Administration in Washington and the local communities that are literally being blown away, we will.

The photographs that accompany this post were taken by NRDC member J. Henry Fair. They were both taken at Kayford Mountain in Southern West Virginia in late 2005. Additional photographs by Henry can be found at and