Mountaintop Removal: FAIL

If you're looking for guaranteed belly laughs, you gotta check out failblog.  There's no sense in describing the insanely funny photos -- the humor is self-explanatory.  The site inspired me to create a "fail" for mountaintop removal...

Reclamation Fail

The above is a picture I took of a Kentucky mountaintop post-mining.  Supposedly it has been reclaimed -- see that sprayed on grass where lush forests use to be?

Coal companies may not love mountains but they sure love to tout how they restore mountaintops after they remove them by blasting, digging and dumping.  In fact, federal law (Surface Mining and Reclamation Act) requires mining sites to be returned to their "approximate original contour" (AOC).  While mining companies are required to backfill and regrade mountaintops so they closely resemble the original surface configuration, generally this never happens --primarily because little guidance exists for defining AOC and even less has been done to enforce it.

Of course, the law ignores the fact that it remains near impossible to functionally replace a mountain whose ecological niche was 400 million years in the making.  But here's the kicker: The law allows companies to restore the area to equal or better economic use without returning the contour.  In theory, this means that coal companies may repurpose land to be used for industrial, commercial, residential, or public use.  In practice, the former mountaintops typically get converted into meadows, suitable at best for grazing.  Very little, if any, economic development takes place on "restored" mine sites. 


As part of the reclamation process, coal companies typically just re-seed the flattened mountains.  This often involves a process called hydroseeding, where sprayers coat exposed rock with a concoction of fertilizer, cellulose mulch, and seeds of non-native grasses.  This can never adequately substitute for the diverse forest originally covering the land. 

A big problem is that mountaintop removal mine sites experience extremely slow rates of recolonization by native plants and trees.  This is because unlike other forms of industrial vegetation removal such as clear-cut logging, strip mining heavily removes topsoil.  Enormous machines compact the fertile land that remains reducing the ability of native plants to grow in the area.  Even if mining companies replace the topsoil stripped by the operation, the biological communities within the soil are no long intact.  Such disruption fundamentally alters the hydrologic regime of the soil greatly impeding growth.

Waterways destroyed by mountaintop removal face even worse prospects for recovery than the forests that feed them.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, restoration efforts have never re-created a functioning headwater stream on mined or filled areas through mitigation efforts.

No Mountains, No Money

The big myth perpetuated by the mining industry is that the flat land created by mountaintop removal is needed for economic development.  The idea is that leveling mountains provides an economic opportunity for the citizens of Appalachia, as the lowered and flat land of a reclaimed sight can be more easily developed than a steep-sloped mountain.  Yet the thought that Appalachia actually needs flattened mountains to develop remains grossly misleading and sickly suggests that the only good mountain is a flattened mountain.

So, for example, in West Virginia -- where the coal industry is trying to take the mountains out of the Mountain State -- only 666 jobs have been created in Mingo County through reclaimed mountaintop removal development projects.  Such projects include prisons, golf courses, airports, strip malls and recreation areas.

In West Virginia alone there exists 1.3 million acres of undeveloped but developable land, according to EPA.  Moreover, EPA's assessmment found that nearly one-quarter of mountaintop removal permits encompass areas already rated as having a high potential for development.  In fact, infrastructure development encompasses less than 2% of reclaimed mountaintop land in West Virginia alone. Thus the argument that more flat land is needed for development is flat-out wrong. 

And think about this: Although approximately 92% of mountaintop-mined land in Appalachia was originally forest, nearly 50% of those areas are on track to be converted into pasture as a post mining land use.  In Kentucky, for instance, only 8% of post mining land use in 2008 was returned to "forests", according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.  All told, only about 1% of post-mining land has been converted for commercial use in that state.

It's a more legitimate argument to say that economic development requires intact mountains more than it needs flat land.  Consider that coalfield residents already utilize the natural environment as a source of income, as well as an integral element of their Appalachian culture.  Additionally, mountaintop removal eliminates the ability of Appalachian residents to utilize the natural beauty of their surroundings to grow their economy through tourism.  Take Tennessee, which has emphasized utilizing mountains for tourism development instead of energy exploitation -- contributing more than $14 billion annually to the state's economy. 

Certainly, the sand traps of the few golf courses covering a small portion of reclaimed strip-mined land hide the fact that the destruction of Appalachia's pristine environment permanently hinders a better economic use of the region's natural resources. 

For more perspective on mountaintop reclamation, check out this essay in OnEarth magazine.