Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

For the industry, mountaintop removal is a relatively cheap and expedient way to extract coal, but for the environment and nearby communities, the costs are staggering.


Photo © Robert Llewellyn

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Devastating the Appalachians

Across central Appalachia, the coal industry is leaving a path of destruction in the wake of  mountaintop removal coal mining.  For the industry, this is a relatively cheap and expedient way to extract coal, but for the environment and nearby communities, the costs are staggering.

Forests and topsoil are stripped from mountain ridges, and then, using tons of explosives, coal companies blast the mountaintops off to expose the underlying coal seams. The rock and soil, called “overburden,” are pushed into nearby valleys, called “valley fills.” The result: loss of critical forest habitat and widespread destruction of mountain streams, many of which are also critical headwaters for drinking water sources downstream. 

Although the coal industry must reclaim surface-mined lands, current reclamation requirements do little to stabilize the sites or regenerate a healthy forest. In fact, a government report noted that it could take hundreds of years for large sites to become fully reforested. For many species, this is simply too late. 

According to federal government estimates, mountaintop removal coal mining has damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 miles of streams in four central Appalachia states , including Virginia and Tennessee (where it is known as “cross-ridge mining”). Amazingly, these mining practices by-and-large have been allowed under current laws.

Stream Buffer Zone Rule

A federal stream buffer zone rule has been in place since 1977, which prohibits coal mining operations in or within 100 feet of a stream unless certain conditions could be met. Despite strict requirements in the prior rule, in place since 1983, for when a waiver could be granted, the rule has been a tragic failure because regulatory authorities disregarded the plain language of the 1983 rule and failed to enforce its terms. In late 2008, a regulation issued in the final days of the George W. Bush administration removed essential protections  by eliminating the restrictions of the former rule, and expressly exempting "valley fills" and other destructive mining practices from the buffer requirement, thereby authorizing the continued destruction of Appalachian waterways.

In February 2014, SELC won an important victory on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared the 2008 rule invalid because it violated the Endangered Species Act. The court struck the 2008 rule from the books because the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) had failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding the rule's impacts on federally listed threatened and endangered species in Appalachian streams. The court also concluded that the OSM had unlawfully relied upon a 1996 biological opinion of the FWS as justification for failing to consult, since that opinion could not have taken into account the current scientific information documenting the devastating impacts from mountaintop surface coal mining. While the more protective regulations from 1983 are now back in place, the Obama administration is currently considering options for a new rule that expands protections for the rivers and streams of Appalachia and the species that depend on healthy waterways. 

Overall Energy Advocacy Work is Key

Our extensive work to stop new and retire old coal plants around the region, coupled with our advocacy for strong energy-efficiency policies and programs, will help reduce the demand for coal mined by mountaintop removal.