During the last two decades alone, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has destroyed more than a million acres of forest. That is an area larger than the entire state of Delaware. It’s obliterated some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the United States.
Contrary to public perception, mountaintop removal coal mining is far from over. It continues to impact our communities, our environment, and our health. A 2017 study by Yale University revealed that more than 1,200 people die each year as a result of mountaintop removal mining.
Communities near these sites suffer significantly higher rates of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and chronic lung diseases, due to the long-distance spread of toxic dust and water contamination.
Decapitating Mountains for Coal
In central Appalachia, coal companies detonate the explosive equivalent of more than a thousand Tomahawk missiles in a single day to decapitate the mountains to extract coal. The fine, glassy fallout can remain airborne for miles from the blast before it settles in homes and lungs. The blasting cracks foundations and walls, destroys aquifers, and rattles the nerves of residents. And this doesn’t even begin to address the myriad of other problems such as polluted streams, overweight truck damage to roads and bridges, and billions of gallons of toxic waste sludge dammed up above communities.
While some environmental groups have won lawsuits against coal operators for violating the Clean Water Act and others have successfully pushed banks to stop doing business with the biggest mountaintop removal companies, this backward and malignant practice still continues.
In some cases, the companies just call the process something else, or they narrowly define mountaintop removal to then claim that they’ve stopped doing it. But any steep slope surface mining using explosives has the same results to the surrounding streams, forests, wildlife, and human communities.
Ending Mountaintop Removal
Industry bankruptcies, driven by decreased demand and competition from cheaper fracked gas, haven’t ended mountaintop removal either. Take the case of Alpha Natural Resources. After Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners and leading to a year-long prison sentence for Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship, Alpha bought the company in 2011. When Alpha filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015, a New York Times news report claimed, “Mountaintop removal, the poster child for environmental destruction, has all but ground to a halt…” while another national story claimed, “King Coal is Dead!”
In reality, Alpha continued blasting Coal River Mountain and other sites, while paying lucrative bonuses to executives and jeopardizing retired miners’ promised benefits. Alpha has since merged with Contura Energy, which formed from the bankruptcy reorganization, to form the largest metallurgical coal provider in the country. And they continue to blast Coal River Mountain, creating a public health emergency with their carcinogenic fallout.
Solar panels have been installed and a hemp farm has been planted in the community around Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. However, these viable steps to economic diversification alone won’t end mountaintop removal. Neither will enforcing existing laws.
One way to solve this problem is a bill introduced by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky) and co-sponsored by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). The bill, known as the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act), H.R. 2050, has been introduced in each of the previous four Congresses. But this time, the new House is taking action and held a subcommittee hearing on the bill on April 9. The bill would halt new or expanded mountaintop removal coal mining and would require existing sites to monitor air and water quality.
Only recently, for the very first time, has a presidential candidate pledged to ban the practice. It’s long overdue, but it is without a doubt a benchmark that every candidate must meet. In the lead up to the next debate, citizens across Appalachia will be waiting to see how candidates address the public health and environmental crisis from mountaintop removal. Thousands of lives depend on it.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.