Mountain Removal Coal and Toxic Water Supplies

The EPA should not permit mining operations based on regulatory loopholes and lax enforcement practices that have allowed mountain waterways to be treated as waste dumps. The people in Appalachia, like all Americans, have a right to clean streams, rivers, and drinking water -- and it's up to the EPA to look out for their interests. Today the agency fulfilled that duty, and now we expect the EPA to follow-up with the necessary actions to end -- not to mend -- the practice of mountain removal. Rob Perks, a blogger at the National Resources Defense Council , September 11, 2009.

Sago Mine Disaster, Family members waiting for news, West Virginia, 2006People in Appalachia have lived and worked with coal for generations. Mining communities have endured countless struggles and tragedies associated with harsh conditions of mining underground and also with harsh environmental results of strip mining.

Since the 1970s, scientists, politicians and voters have debated economic, environmental and health effects of reliance on coal-fired energy. In 2006, Appalachians witnessed the Sago Mine underground disaster in West Virginia (photo, left), in which 13 men were trapped for two days and all but one lost their lives.

Now concerns are growing about about impact of the latest coal-mining method on water quality. This method is known as mountaintop removal.

In Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, groups of people are working together to stop mountaintop removal. One factor of enormous concern is the impact of mountaintop removal on water supplies and water quality. A vociferous backlash dogs their footsteps. Some communities are split with neighbors turned against one another.

With the naked eye, you see forested mountain flattened into infertile rocky moonscapes scraped of every trace of wildlife. Families within any range of mountaintop removal operations live in fear of mountain debris fall down on them. With the flick of a switch forests and wooded hills are blown to kingdom come, turned into dead zones. Ravines that once flowed with clear water dill up with rubble or coal-slurry water. Residents say the dust and the rubble are toxic and are poisoning the region's topsoil and waterways. Some are scared heavy metals are poisoning their families and their neighbors. They are scared for their children's health.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation during the Clinton era found that streams near valley fills from mountaintop removal contain high levels of minerals in the water and decreased aquatic biodiversity. The minerals include heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and manganese.

The EPA estimated at that time that 724 miles (1,165 km) of Appalachian streams were buried by valley fills from 1985 to 2001.

Child living with coal slurry pollution in the water West Virginia 2009 photo credit NYTimesFor a start readers might like to watch this brief video in the New York Times article Toxic Waters, by Charles Duhigg, and hear Jennifer Hall-Massey in Charleston, West Virginia brooding over clusters of brain cancer among her family and neighbors. As the video shows, this young mother must bathe her sons, reluctantly, in bathtub water polluted by coal-slurry runoff. Further down in this article are some more inline videos.

The method itself is far more brutal to the environment than strip mining. As in strip mining, all the land above coal seams is renamed as "the overburden." This already labels it as waste to get rid of, as if it were garbage. Instead of using heavy earthmoving equipment to shift this so-called overburden - the soil and rock above the deposit -- mountaintop removal blows it sky high.

About three million pounds of explosives per day are used to blast 600 to 800 feet (240 m) off the tops of densely forested Appalachian mountains. Videos show rock and dust hurling into the atmosphere. All the rock, soil, trees, vegetation and wildlife, blasted to debris, are then dumped in nearby hollows and ravines running with mountain streams. The artificial plateaus remaining, leveled and backfilled, are called flatland.

Mountaintop removal is a zero-sum game. Critics say it does not yield much coal. So far it's yielding only between 4 and 7 percent of the US coal output. Critics say this could be replaced from green energy sources like solar and wind energy plus energy conservation. In the short term, though, blasting tops off mountains is profitable. Engineers and miners take on the work and so far government allows it.

Mountaintop removal blast. width=

Massey Energy Co, one of the companies that practice mountaintop removal coal mining, says that after extracting coal, they restore the environment. But what does this amount to? From forested heights to flatland monoculture grassland. From mountain streams to sludge and slurry pools. Economic development projects on reclaimed mine sites include prisons, industrial scrubber sludge disposal sites, solid waste landfills, trailer parks, explosive manufacturers, and storage rental lockers. Optimists focus on one or two airports and golf-courses as well. Some of these flat land development projects are paid for by taxpayers.

Flatland ventures are quite likely to harm the region's overall economic potential. Productive economic ventures reliant on mountaintop preservation-- such as hunting, fishing, hiking and mountain-climbing; and including in-state, regional and national tourism --may be diminished. Prisons, landfills and sludge sites make the region less desirable as a tourist destination and residential and retirement location. Future ventures that might have made enhanced use of the mountaintops in the natural state are wiped off the drawing board forever.

If mountaintop removal actually is putting residents at risk for heavy metal poisoning, how can the unacceptability of this combined environmental and human health and safety impact best be conveyed to the public?

Water tank corroded by toxic coal-slurry sludge in the H2O supply photo NYTFirst of all it makes sense to start at home. Not all contaminated water smells foul or leaves sludge in water pipes. The "Toxic Waters" article in the Times links to a search form to check your water by city, postal code or state to Find Water Polluters Near You and to a map to sketch in the enforcement record for Clean Water Act violations.

Adding to this, you can help to find out out whether your local electric power plant draws energy from coal produced by mountaintop removal. Go to:

"What's My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?"

After campaigns to spread awareness about environmental destruction caused by mountaintop removal coal mining were launched, organizers decided they needed maps. They needed something like the famous map that Dr. John Snow (1813-1858), a British physician, created to show cases of cholera in the London epidemics of 1854, whose spread he traced to a single water pump. They are using Google Earth to map the magnitude and precise locations of destruction caused by mountaintop removal.

Appalachian Mountaintop Removal

Shown in Google Earth & Maps

This weekend, the campaign won an opening victory at the Environmental Protection Agency. Twitter began carrying messages asking people to thank the EPA for deciding to take a new look at mountaintop removal and its effects on water supplies.

Permits for mountaintop removal come by way of the Army Corps of engineers. According to a report in Scientific American (Sept 11, 2009), in the next 2 weeks EPA will review permits for Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia "where surface coal mining is widespread but has been repeatedly criticized for its environmental impacts." The organization Appalachian Voices put out a press release. They say:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced the preliminary fate of 79 valley fill permit applications associated with mountaintop removal coal mining. In a move that pleased environmentalists and coalfield residents in central and southern Appalachia, the EPA recommended that none of the 79 permits be streamlined for approval. This decision is not final, but is part of a coordination procedure outlined in a June 'memorandum of understanding' between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Interior to deal with a backlog of permits held up by litigation over the past few years. The EPA has promised a more stringent and transparent review of all mountaintop removal valley fill permit applications.

Rob Perks, a blogger at the National Resources Defense Council , said "The EPA should not permit mining operations based on regulatory loopholes and lax enforcement practices that have allowed mountain waterways to be treated as waste dumps. The people in Appalachia, like all Americans, have a right to clean streams, rivers, and drinking water -- and it's up to the EPA to look out for their interests. Today the agency fulfilled that duty, and now we expect the EPA to follow-up with the necessary actions to end -- not to mend -- the practice of mountain removal."

Massey Energy says their operations use a unique Slurry Monitoring System system on their pipelines to prevent spills. Videos like the one of the children in their bathtub show a different story.

This campaign has brought forth heroes. One of them is lifelong resident West Virginia resident Maria Gunnoe, recently awarded a prize for her fights against environmentally-devastating mountaintop removal mining and valley fill operations.


On December 22 2008 a retaining wall holding 80 acres of fly ash failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired power plant. An aerial survey showed 5.4 million cubic yards of wet coal ash were released, enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

This is reckoned to be the worst human-made environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

Coal Ash Disaster Dec 22-24 2008


A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority's largest.

The authority never warned residents of potential dangers, though federal studies show that coal ash can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens. Jeff Biggers in Grist wrote: "According to numerous studies, coal ash contains mercury, lead, and arsenic. And nearly 800 Olympic-size swimming pools of that toxic mix is flowing into the waterways of Tennessee now."

"What's My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?"

You can search by zip code or the name of your local power company to find out if you are helping to pay for this radical form of coal mining where entire mountains are literally blown up -- devastating communities throughout Appalachia, polluting drinking water and destroying rivers.


Appalachian Voices

Ohio Valley Environmental Corporation



Two photos on this page are stills extracted from the video Toxic Waters: Coal in the Water, Produced by Zach Wise, Photography by Damon Winter, New York Times Video Library, 2009.

The top photo, of family members waiting for news of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, 2006, is an unidentified news source.


Mine Disasters Blogspot -- About: Dawson Springs : Kentucky : United States

John Snow -- A Historical Giant in Epidemiology (UCLA)

Massey Energy Co

The goat rope blog

Coal's shine is dulled - at least this week The Daily Yonder - Keep it Rural.

Rob Perks Swtichboard at National Resources Defense Council .

Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass CHARLES DUHIGG August 22, 2009