Mountaintop Removal: Farewell to Forests

One of the biggest concerns about mountaintop removal coal mining has to do with its impacts on water.  That's understandable, of course, because this extreme strip mining involves dumping tons of blasted rubble, dirt and contaminated waste over the side of the mountain, burying and polluting valley streams.  Nearly 2,000 Appalachian streams have so far been damaged by mountaintop removal.  For this reason EPA recently set significant new water quality standards that will make it tougher for mining companies to get permits for so-called valley fills.

But it's important to realize that mountaintop removal is the greatest contributor to earth moving activity in the United States.

Think about that for a moment.  To date, some 500 Appalachian peaks have been flattened by detonating high explosives and using heavy machinery to scrape the mountains table-top flat.  As I document in NRDC's issue paper "Appalachian Heartbreak":

  • Mountaintop removal mines encompass more than 1 million acres, an area nearly the size of Delaware. 
  • A typical mountaintop mine removes the top 600 to 800 feet from a mountain—the equivalent of lowering a mountain nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty.  
  • Just one mountaintop mine may exceed 10 square miles and produce 750 million cubic yards of wastes—or roughly twice the amount of material it took to build the Great Wall of China.
  • And mountaintop mines are getting larger.  In Kentucky, for example, the number of mines greater than 100 acres has increased significantly over the past few years to a total of more than 800 as of 2008—122 of which exceed 1,000 acres in size.

Besides the water woes and land disturbance, consider what was on the surface of those ridges before their tops were removed: trees.  And not just any old trees.  The Appalachians are blessed with the most biologically diverse temperate deciduous forests in the world.  Mountaintop removal is destroying these forests at an alarming rate.

  • EPA estimates that at current rates of deforestation from mountaintop removal, the total forest loss by 2012 would be 1,408,372 acres—or 2,200 square miles. 
  • Forests not completely destroyed by mountaintop removal become fragmented, converting ecologically diverse interior forest to edge forest at a rate of up to five times greater than regular forest loss.
  • As the forests are converted from interior to edge, they lose much of their ecological function supporting the floral and faunal diversity of Appalachia.
  • Among the wildlife at risk from the fragmentation and loss of Appalachia’s mature forests are millions of migratory songbirds.

The loss of so much lush Appalachian forest is a big deal, especially when you consider that after increasing during much of the 20th century, forest cover in the eastern United States is on the decline.  This alarming trend is based on an exhaustive new analysis published in the April 2010 issue of BioScience.  The research by Mark Drummond and Thomas Loveland of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is summarized in an article by ScienceDaily:

During the 19th century and earlier, forests were cleared for agriculture on a large scale, but from around 1920 onward, the eastern United States experienced a net increase in forest cover as fields were abandoned and trees regrew.  Experts have been uncertain whether this trend has continued. Drummond and Loveland examined changes in the eastern part of the country from 1973 to 2000 as part of the USGS's Land Cover Trends project, using remotely sensed imagery as well as statistical data, field notes, and ground photographs.  Over this time they found a 4.1 percent decline in total forest area, a "substantial and sustained net loss" equivalent to more than 3.7 million hectares. 

As might be expected, most forest loss occurs as result of forestry and urban development.  But the study singles out mountaintop removal for its "substantial impact" in Appalachia -- "contributing more than 420,000 hectares of net forest decline."  Mountaintop mining gained new momentum in the Appalachian region during the 1990s -- or as the study says:  "The extent of change was driven by the advancement of excavation technology and policies that encouraged mining of low-sulfur coal." 

The key result, as noted by the study is that for the most part "reclaimed" mining lands transitioned from diverse deciduous forest to "barren, grass- and shrubland."  Of course, that has has important implications for sustainability, biodiversity, and future carbon sequestration.  On the latter point, obviously the loss of these forests from coal mining means less of a natural carbon sink for global warming pollution.  (Or as a friend puts it: wilderness is a deposit into a carbon bank, but every tree logged is a withdrawal.)  To date, the extent of the loss of Appalachian forest cover means the loss of 3.14 million tons of carbon dioxide sequestration annually.

Yet another significant ecological impact that argues for putting a stop on mountaintop removal.