Mountaintop Mining Reclamation: A Big, Flat Lie

"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.  Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land."  (Leviticus 25:23-24)

"In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like.  But it will be used because it's level land."  -- Bill Caylor, Kentucky Coal Association

Across the Appalachians, big coal companies are turning our nations' oldest mountains into molehills via mountaintop removal.  Aside from the obvious environmental devastation and damage to coalfield communities, there is the issue of what happens with the desolate moonscapes.  This is where "flat land logic" comes in. 

For years, the mining industry has keenly exploited a gaping statutory loophole.  You see, the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) contains a stipulation that allows companies to restore a strip-mined area to "equal or better economic use" without restoring the biological function of the mountain or restoring its contour.  In theory, this means that coal companies may repurpose land to be used for "industrial, commercial, residential, or public use."  Under this rationale, the coal industry contends that leveling mountains provides one of the few economic opportunities for the citizens of Appalachia because the lowered and flat land of a reclaimed mine can be more easily developed than a steep-sloped mountain. In reality, economic development has taken place on just a fraction of flattened mountaintops in Appalachia.

The Lexington Herald-Leader just published a story on this issue, headlined "Mountain Potential?"  The gist of the article is that while reclaimed strip mines provide level land, very little of it is used for economic development. 

Let's set aside for a moment the offensive assumption that the only good mountain is a flattened one.  The fact is, there is already plenty of flat land in Appalachia available for "beneficial" use.  To be sure, some of the land left level after mining the region's steep hills and narrow valleys has been used for development -- including golf courses, prisons, housing and hospitals.  But as the Lexington Herald-Leader found:

Development was planned for less than 3 percent of the roughly half-million acres of land covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky over the last decade, according to state data.  That amounts to less than 14,000 acres scheduled to be reclaimed for commercial, residential, industrial or recreational development, data from the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits shows.

As my friend Teri Blanton, with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, puts it:  "To say that you're creating flat land for economic development, it's just a lie."

Reclamation Fail

I've blogged about the reclamation process before -- what I call "wrecklamation." 

Let's face it, how many businesses or homeowners would want to be located on top of a mountaintop removal site?  These sites typically are far from towns and lack infrastructure such as water service.  Then there's the unstable ground that's not suitable for building.  And the landscape consists of compacted, rocky soil that is devoid of any vegetation other than non-native grasses and scrub trees.  Add to that the fact that eastern Kentucky, like much of the Appalachian coalfields, is a remote region and rapidly losing population to other areas where jobs are more plentiful.

What usually happens with these former mountaintop mining sites is converstion to fallow fields, suitable at best for other forms of industrial processes.  This is an outrage when you consider that nearly all of the mountaintops in Appalachia were forested, but after mining much of the land is destined to become biologically impoverished fields.  In Kentucky, for instance, only 8 percent of postmining land use in 2008 was returned to forests -- 92 percent was not -- and a little more than 1 percent of postmining land has been converted for commercial use, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.  

This should dispel the myth of the coal industry's mantra: "If you mine it, they will come."

In fact, the opposite is more often the case.  Surely, far more could be done for local economic development by leaving the landscape intact than by destroying the mountains for short-term gain.  After all, environmental quality and tourism are positively correlated.  Consider Tennessee, which has emphasized using mountains for tourism development instead of energy exploitation.  Mountain tourism contributes $14.2 billion to the state's economy.  However, mountaintop removal eliminates the ability of Appalachian residents to use the natural beauty of their surroundings to grow their economy through tourism.  

Without a doubt, the sand traps of a few golf courses on former mountaintop mining sites hide the fact that the destruction of Appalachia's environment permanently hinders a better economic use of the region's natural resources.