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Mountaintop removal mining (MTR), often referred to as mountaintop mining (MTM), is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. Entire coal seams are removed from the top of a mountain, hill or ridge by removing the overburden above them, leaving a flat plateau or a gently rolling contour. The large amounts of overburden is moved into neighboring valleys. It is most closely associated with coal mining in the Appalachian Mountainsmarker in the eastern United States. The process involves blasting with explosives to remove up to 400 vertical feet (120 m) of mountain to expose underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil are often dumped into what are called "holler fills" or "valley fills." After active mining has been completed all disturbed areas of the mining operation are required by Federal law contained in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) to be reclaimed as one of several post-mining land use options.


Mountaintop removal has been practiced since the 1960s. Increased demand for coal in the United States, sparked by the 1973 and 1979 petroleum crises, created incentives for a more economical form of coal mining than the traditional underground mining methods involving hundreds of workers, triggering the first widespread use of MTR. Its prevalence expanded further in the 1990s to retrieve relatively low-sulfur coal, a cleaner-burning form, which became desirable as a result of amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act that tightened emissions limits on high-sulfur coal processing. With an increasing call for energy independence in the U.S., as well as a growing call for Coal-To-Liquids and "clean coal technologies", MTR has continued to expand into the 2000s.


MTR in the United States is most often associated with the extraction of coal in the Appalachian Mountainsmarker, where the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that of Appalachian forests will be cleared for MTR sites by the year 2012. Sites range from Ohio to Virginia. It occurs most commonly in West Virginiamarker and Eastern Kentuckymarker, the top two coal-producing states in Appalachia, with each state using approximately 1000 metric tons of explosives per day for surface mining. At current rates, MTR in the U.S. will mine over 1.4 million acres (5,700 km²) by 2010, an amount of land area that exceeds that of the state of Delaware.


"Step 2.
The upper seams of coal are removed with spoils placed in an adjacent valley."
"Step 3.
Draglines excavate lower layers of coal with spoils placed in spoil piles."
"Step 4.
Regrading begins as coal excavation continues."
"Step 5.
Once coal removal is complete, final regrading takes place and the area is revegetated."
Land is deforested prior to mining operations and the resultant lumber is either sold or burned. According to SMCRA, the topsoil is supposed to be removed and set aside for later reclamation. However, coal companies are often granted waivers and instead reclaim the mountain with "topsoil substitute." The waivers are granted if adequate amounts of topsoil are not naturally present on the rocky ridge top. Once the area is cleared, miners use explosives to blast away the overburden, the rock and subsoil, to expose coal seams beneath. The overburden is then moved by various mechanical means to areas of the ridge previously mined. These areas are the most economical area of storage as they are located close to the active pit of exposed coal. If the ridge topography is too steep to adequately handle the amount of spoil produced then additional storage is used in a nearby valley or hollow, creating what is known as a valley fill or hollow fill. Any streams in a valley are buried by the overburden.

A front-end loader or excavator then removes the coal, where it is transported to a processing plant. Once coal removal is completed, the mining operators back stack overburden from the next area to be mined into the now empty pit. After backstacking and grading of overburden has been completed, topsoil (or a topsoil substitute) is layered over the overburden layer. Next, grass seed is spread in a mixture of seed, fertilizer, and mulch made from recycled newspaper. Depending on surface land owner wishes the land will then be further reclaimed by adding trees if the pre-approved post-mining land use is forest land or wildlife habitat. If the land owner has requested other post-mining land uses the land can reclaimed to be used as pasture land, economic development or other uses specified in SMCRA.

Because coal usually exists in multiple geologically stratified seams, miners can often repeat the blasting process to mine over a dozen seams on a single mountain, increasing the mine depth each time. This can result in a vertical descent of hundreds of extra feet into the earth. Many if not all of these seams mined in the MTR method are too thin to be mined using any other method of mining.


Just under half of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by coal-fired power plants. MTR accounted for less than 5% of U.S. coal production as of 2001. In some regions, however, the percentage is higher, for example MTR provided 30% of the coal mined in West Virginia in 2006.

Historically in the U.S. the prevalent method of coal acquisition was underground mining which is very labor-intensive. In MTR, through the use of explosives and large machinery, more than two and a half times as much coal can be extracted per worker per hour than in traditional underground mines, thus greatly reducing the need for workers. The industry lost approximately 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997, as MTR and other more mechanized underground mining methods became more widely used. The coal industry asserts that surface mining techniques, such as mountaintop removal, are safer for miners than sending miners underground.

Proponents argue that in certain geologic areas, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow the only access to thin seams of coal that traditional underground mining would not be able to mine. MTR is sometimes the most cost-effective method of extracting coal and provides high-paying jobs.

Legislation in the United States

In the United States, MTR is allowed by section 515(c)(1) of SMCRA. Although most coal mining sites must be reclaimed to the land's pre-mining contour and use, regulatory agencies can issue waivers to allow MTR. In such cases, SMCRA dictates that reclamation must create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining."

Permits must be obtained to deposit valley fill into streams. On four occasions, federal courts have ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act by issuing such permits. Massey Energy Company is currently appealing a 2007 ruling, but has been allowed to continue mining in the meantime because "most of the substantial harm has already occurred," according to the judge.

The Bush administration appealed one of these rulings in 2001 because the Act had not explicitly defined "fill material" that could legally be placed in a waterway. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers changed a rule to include mining debris in the definition of fill material, and the ruling was overturned. However, if passed, the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R.1310), a bill in the House of Representatives, would revert this change by specifying that coal mining waste does not constitute fill material, in effect disallowing valley fills.

On December 2, 2008, the Bush Administration made a rule change to remove the Stream Buffer Zone protection provision from SMCRA allowing coal companies to place mining waste rock and dirt directly into headwater waterways.

A federal judge has also ruled that using settling ponds to remove mining waste from streams violates the Clean Water Act. He also declared that the Army Corps of Engineers has no authority to issue permits allowing discharge of pollutants into such in-stream settling ponds, which are often built just below valley fills.

On January 15, 2008, the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to end a policy that waives detailed federal Endangered Species Act reviews for new mining permits. The current policy states that MTR can never damage endangered species or their habitat as long as mining operators comply with federal surface mining law, despite the complexities of species and ecosystems. Since 1996, this policy has exempted many strip mines from being subject to permit-specific reviews of impact on individual endangered species.

On May 25, 2008 North Carolinamarker State Representative Pricey Harrison introduced a bill to ban the use of mountaintop removal coal from coal fired power plants within North Carolina. This proposed legislation would have been the only legislation of its kind in the United States, however the bill was defeated.


Critics contend that MTR is a destructive and unsustainable practice that benefits a small number of corporations at the expense of local communities and the environment. Though the main issue has been over the physical alteration of the landscape, opponents to the practice have also criticized MTR for the damage done to the environment by massive transport trucks, and the environmental damage done by the burning of coal for power. Blasting at MTR sites also expels coal dust and fly-rock into the air, which can disturb or settle onto private property nearby. This dust contains sulfur compounds, which corrodes structures and is a health hazard.

Advocates of MTR claim that once the areas are reclaimed as mandated by law, the area provides flat land suitable for many uses in a region where flat land is at a premium. They also maintain that the new growth on reclaimed mountaintop mined areas is better suited to support populations of game animals.

Some artists have been leaders in the fight against the process of mountaintop removal. Writers and musicians have been particularly active in Kentucky. In April 2005, respected writer and social critic Wendell Berry invited Kentucky writers on a tour of mountaintop removal sites that started a movement that continues to heat up. The attending writers have since contributed writing on the issue to national magazines and newspapers and even created a respected book called Missing Mountains, edited by Kristin Johnason, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Mary-Ann Taylor Hall. The book contains a foreword by Silas House and an afterword by Berry and is widely used in college courses.

2005 also saw the release of the album Songs For the Mountaintop, a collection of anti-MTR music. In 2007 the band Public Outcry (Silas House, Jason Howard, Jessie Lynne Keltner, Kate Larken, George Ella Lyon, and Anne Shelby) was formed to sing anti-MTR songs. They have performed at universities, festivals, and libraries throughout the region and in 2008 released their first, eponymous album.

Many personal interest stories of coalfield residents have been written; the first, Lost Mountain by Erik Reese,was released in 2005. In addition, Penny Loeb (Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice From Big Coal) and Michael Shnayerson (Coal River) have also contributed to the anti-mountaintop removal struggle with informative works. To date, Dr. Shirley Stewart Burns, a coalfield native, has written the only academic book on mountaintop removal, titled Bringing Down The Mountains (2007), which is loosely based on the 2005 Ph.D. dissertation of the same name. All of these books are critically acclaimed and their authors continue to make a collective effort to give voice to the people of the Appalachian coalfields.

In 2006, cultural historian, Jeff Biggers, published The United States of Appalachia, which chronicled the historical contributions of Appalachians and their impact on the nation, and examined the role of mountaintop removal in destroying Appalachia's history and cultural significance. Biggers continues to write extensively on the cultural and human costs of mountaintop removal, and the parallel connection between the devastation of the environment and the culture.

In 2006, Catherine Pancake released the first comprehensive feature-length documentary on mountaintop removal ["Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Search for Coalfield Justice."] The film received critical acclaim and multiple awards including a selection in the Documentary Fortnight at Museum of Modern Art ( The film features Julia Bonds who won the [2003 Goldman Prize].

In 2007 Ann Pancake released the novel Strange As This Weather Has Been, which has been hailed by critics and received several awards. The book is the first major fiction work about the subject of MTR and was highly critical of the mining practice.

In 2007, a feature documentary titled Mountain Top Removal was completed by Haw River Films. The film features Mountain Justice Summer activists, coal field residents, and coal industry officials. Included in the film are Former US President George W. Bush and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, among others. On April 18, 2008 the film received the Reel Current award selected and presented by Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival.

In 2008, a second feature documentary titled Burning the Future: Coal in America was made by Director David Novack and produced by former Shooting Gallery executive, CJ Follini. The film examines the explosive conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginiamarker. Confronted by emerging “clean coal” energy policies, local activists watch a world blind to the devastation caused by coal's extraction. The film was awarded The International Documentary Association's 2008 Pare Lorentz award for Best Documentary

Maria Gunnoe is a community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition who is concerned about the long-term effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. She is featured in the 2008 documentary film Burning the Future: Coal in America and the 2007 documentary film Mountain Top Removal. In 2006, Gunnoe received the Callaway Award for her organizing efforts in her southern West Virginiamarker community.


A United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) environmental impact statement finds that streams near some valley fills from mountaintop removal contain higher levels of minerals in the water and decreased aquatic biodiversity. The statement also estimates that of Appalachian streams were buried by valley fills between 1985 to 2001.

Although U.S. mountaintop removal sites by law must be reclaimed after mining is complete, reclamation has traditionally focused on stabilizing rock formations and controlling for erosion, and not on the reforestation of the affected area. Fast-growing, non-native grasses such as lespedeza sericea, planted to quickly provide vegetation on a site, compete with tree seedlings, and trees have difficulty establishing root systems in compacted backfill. Consequently, biodiversity suffers in a region of the United States with numerous endemic species. In addition, introduced species of elk on mountaintop removal sites in Kentucky are eating tree seedlings.

See also


  1. [1]
  2. Appeals Court Upholds Mountaintop Removal Mining
  3. Mountaintop Mining and Valley Fills in Appalachia (MTM/VF) - Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement
  4. Copeland pp.39
  5. "When Mountains Move" by John G. Mitchell, March 2006, National Geographic (3 September 2008)
  6. J. O. Britton and others, West Virginia, Mining Engineering, May 2007, p.125.
  9. J.S. Gardner and P Sainato, Mountaintop mining and sustainable development in Appalachia, Mining Engineering, March 2007, p.48-55.
  10. New Book on Mountaintop Removal: Bringing Down the Mountains
  11. Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal Surface Coal Mining on Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970-2004
  12. Pare Lorentz in Wiki[2]
  14. The Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest
  15. They flattened this mountaintop to find coal - and created a wasteland
  16. In coal country, heat rises over latest method of mining
  17. Burning the Future: Coal in America

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