Mountaintop Removal: Our Energy Legacy

July 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mountaintop Removal is a method of surface mining coal from the interior of mountains via the use of explosives to blast up to 1,000 feet of overburden (soil and stone) off the top of a mountain. This method allows energy corporations to easily access what is commonly referred to as a coal seam. A coal seam is basically a band of coal that is wide enough and deep enough to be mined for a significant profit to the offending company and its shareholders.

The process of mountaintop removal begins with the cutting of roads into the side of a mountain in order to allow the massive equipment and explosives access to the mountain. When roads are complete the ecosystem destruction begins in earnest as the clear cutting of forests removes all traces of plant life, thus animal life as well. The effects of clear cutting reach far beyond trees as it destroys the understory plants as well, such as moss, shrubs, ferns, flowers, etc. The understory harbors what can be described as micro ecosystems in which specific species of insects, amphibians and other wildlife may rely on a single plant species for it’s survival, a symbiotic relationship destroyed along with the larger or macro ecosystem.

Next, explosives remove top soil and other sediment in order to discover and access the coal that resides in the inner core of the mountain. The amount of explosives used is mind boggling as literally millions of pounds are used every single day. The resulting sediment is stacked either on the mountain if it is economically viable and physically possible or it is used to fill in valleys (aka “valley fills”). There are occasions when a mining company will attempt to “reclaim” the mountaintop by trying to mimic the contour of the original mountain, but it has been proven an utter failure in most cases. When and if the mountain is reclaimed invasive and exotic species of grass are planted which native species cannot compete with. Obviously, any shred of ecosystem that survived the clear cutting or amazingly the blasting is now forced into oblivion.

Once the mountaintop is completely removed they bring in the massive coal excavators and trucks to carton off the coal. The machines used to extract the coal are called draglines and are 20 stories high and over 4 million pounds. It is hard to imagine something that weighs that much, but that is not even the largest of these beasts, I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt that they are not using the largest of the draglines that come in at over 28 million pounds! The front end excavators move in to pick up the coal, place in behemoth dump trucks and relocate the coal for it’s next step in the carbon producing cycle.

The valley fills, despite past legislation and attempts to pass and enforce further legislation, have destroyed over 2,000 miles of streams and rivers throughout the Appalachians. The headwaters of rivers are effectively destroyed in most cases which disrupts the flow of water that comprise major rivers. The aquatic life that depends on those waters are killed and will never recover in that area despite what they may tell you (at least in our lifetime.) What may seem like a localized ecosystem/environmental “disruption” has far reaching consequences. Keep in mind that the chemicals and heavy minerals that are exposed as a result of the mining process and resulting washing of the excavated coal create further health hazards to local populations as these toxic byproducts seep into ground water and contaminate wells. Instances of mountaintop removal health impacts are becoming more and more prevalent.

The Appalachian Mountains are one of the most exquisite geological features of the eastern United States and North America. The Southern Appalachians are widely known in the biology/conservation community for hosting an extraordinary biodiversity in both plant and animal species. A particularly noteworthy example of diversity is the approximately 10% of global salamander diversity occurs in the Southern Appalachians alone. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there are more species of trees than there are in all of Europe. These facts barely skim the surface of what is an amazing array of existing biodiversity. Mountaintop Removal is destroying this unique environment.

Old growth forest in the Appalachian Mountains comprises 1% of the total forested area. It has taken countless years for areas to recover from logging and deforestation. Just as these ecosystems have recovered they are once again being destroyed through mountaintop removal. The highest point in the range, Mount Mitchell, is 6,684 ft. and if we are not careful, and obviously we aren’t, the Appalachian Mountains are going to have a new range known as the Appalachian Coal Plateaus. Coal provides almost 50% of America’s energy needs; it is time to take a realistic look at our energy policy.

We have a crisis in the gulf and are destroying our lands and ecosystems through things like mountaintop removal. Are you reaping any benefits, I doubt it and even if you are is it really worth it? It is as if we value money over our own existence. We can be lazy and say “It costs too much.” Or “What is a couple of mountaintops here and there.”, but that is only a way to deny what you must feel deep down, It Is Wrong. I have heard some commentators claim that these issues are being used to push a green energy agenda…..if these issues aren’t a reason for pursuing a cleaner energy policy what in the world is. The next step is only total annihilation(perhaps extreme) and I am sure we will find a way to justify continuing cheap, destructive, wholly selfish means of supplying our needs as a country. In truth, I have little hope for change at any time in our future. Be realistic, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel…if you do it is probably coal fired. Click here to see if you are the recipient of energy from Mountaintop Removal coal.

Please take a more exhaustive look at Mountaintop Removal:

Mountain Justice

Award Winning Documentary – Burning the Future:Coal in America


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