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.

Coal companies use tons of explosives to blast the mountaintops off, strip the critical forest habitat and topsoil from mountain ridges, and expose the underlying coal seams. The blasted rock and soil are pushed into nearby valleys and cause widespread destruction of mountain streams that are headwaters for drinking water sources downstream. 

According to federal government estimates, mountaintop removal coal mining has damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 miles of streams in four central Appalachian states, including Virginia and Tennessee. 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 prohibits surface coal mining operations within 100 feet of a stream unless certain conditions could be met and protects these sources of clean water from toxic coal mining waste. In late 2008, a regulation issued in the final days of the George W. Bush administration removed these essential stream protections and effectively authorized the continued destruction of Appalachian waterways.

SELC challenged this rule and won an important victory on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association. In February 2014 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared the 2008 rule invalid because it violated the Endangered Species Act and reinstated the more protective regulations from 1983.

Proposed Rule Changes

In July 2015, the Obama administration released the draft “Stream Protection Rule.”  Although the lengthy proposal would provide some additional protections to downstream waters, it would weaken the stream buffer requirement considerably.  SELC will participate in the public review process and advocate for stronger protections for the rivers and streams of Appalachia and the communities 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.