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Coal Industry's Orwellian Rebranding of Mountaintop Removal

Rob Perks

Posted November 30, 2010

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There's a popular TV show in which every week a family in need gets to have its delapidated house torn down and rebuilt into a luxurious mansion.  This is called an "Extreme Home Makoever."

The coal industry reportedly has a cynical plan to re-brand mountaintop removal to make it seem more palatable to the public.  In this case, blowing up an Appalachian ridge and leaving behind a lifeless leveled landscape would be called "mountaintop development." 

An extreme mountain makeover for the world's most extreme strip mining?  Hardly.

George Orwell must be rolling over in his grave.

It's bad enough that in Appalachia rapacious coal companies are hell-bent on flattening America's oldest mountains for the sake of a polluting rock, but to even imply that this destructive practice somehow benefits the local economies is beyond disgraceful.  Not only has heavily mechanized mountaintop mining caused a drastic decline in jobs for miners, but it has left countless coalfield communities impoverished. 

[UPDATE: Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. in his Coal Tattoo blog today, takes the West Virginia Commerce Department to task for recently touting the creation of 13,000 jobs on former surface mines in West Virginia.  In fact, after some good old-fashioned journalistic digging, Ward debunks the agency's pro-mining spin and questions whether "government development boosters and mining regulators are just interested in trying to help the coal industry 're-brand' strip mining, or in holding coal companies to the post-mining development requirements Congress established 33 years ago?"]

In a recent news story about this cynical marketing ploy by the coal industry, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association claims that post-mined lands in Appalachia converted to industrial, commercial or recreational facilities generate a "tremendous amount of economic development.”  He further asserts that the terms “mountaintop removal” and “mountaintop development” are interchangeable since post-mined land is "always be left more valuable than it was before."  

Not so, counters Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.  “If they’re hoping to, you know, create shopping malls on some of these, I don’t know where they’re going to get all the shoppers,” she said. “All the communities around these areas have been driven away.” 

Stockman rightly challenges the notion that development should even be a justification for more mountaintop removal, because there are already more than enough undeveloped mine sites in the state.  “Back in 2002 we had some volunteers create some maps for us,” she said. “There were just massive amounts of land that are not, in any way, shape or form, developed. It’s a complete myth that West Virginia needs any more flat land.” 

Indeed, NRDC's recent analysis found that the industry's promise of reclaiming flat land for economic development is a big, flat lie.  Our study -- "Reclamation FAIL" -- revealed that of the 1.2 million acres, including 500 mountains, that have been demolished by coal companies in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, over 89% of sites have no post-mining development.

Make no mistake: In most cases when we lose a mountain, we gain a moonscape like the one below.


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Mary GoodsonDec 1 2010 06:08 PM

Ok, maybe I'm a bit slow... I was all ready to jump on the bandwagon beside you, but then you showed me a picture of the "Moonscape".

I dunno about you, but I've never seen swathes of green growing on the moon. What I see is an area of wide open green space. From the stories I'd been hearing I expected to see hundreds of thousands of acres of gray slag, with deeply eroded areas caused by rain. All I see is what looks park like and grassy. I can envision whole Eco-communities being built in places like this. I know of several in my area (WV Panhandle) where the developers build the houses, shopping areas, schools, theaters, etc.... basically building a town, on areas that looked much like this.

This is a problem.... why? Exactly? What am I missing?

Vickie TerryDec 1 2010 08:19 PM

To Mary Goodson. Nothing will grow on it (that "grass" isn't good for nothing) all the soil is gone, water is now too contaminated to bath in-let alone drink it & this is rubble, waste-it tends to shift because it is not stable.

Deb RandDec 1 2010 11:10 PM

I am not sure how anyone can consider complete anhilation of water, soil, air, and enviroment. Nothing EVER grows back. Drinking water is destroyed. Land owners have NO RIGHTS!!!. NO COMPENSATION if they do not own the mineral rights and MOST landowners do not. Wildlife is destroyed. Streams, destroyed. I LIVE in WV APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS and there is NOTHING good about this. Our land is being terriorized and no one can stop it. Believe me if anyone were living in this other than reading about it they would be shocked. Who is this raping of the land for? not the people. WV has the worst healthcare, poverty level,jobless rate. How is this helping ANY state, any person other than big business and government. Take a leasure drive through the lovely APPALACHIAN mountain top removal. Bring a picnic and see how fast you pull over for your lunch.

Joe HagenDec 2 2010 02:20 PM

Deb - The picture above is deceiving at this distance. The green that you see is mostly invasive exotic grasses and forbs like knapweed and lespideza. If you were standing there on the ground, its barren-ness would be much more readily apparent. While it's true that the "moonscape" appearance is more typical of a mountaintop removal site in actual operation, this site is still a biological desert. The once lush Appalachian forests that grew there will take centuries to return, if ever. What's more is that an NRDC study in 2009 looked at some 400 different sites that had been mined and "reclaimed" like this one - less than 6% had been reclaimed for some economic development use. That's the BIG failure. Vivian Stockman is absolutely right: there's a ton of this land lying around unused already. So the problem is: forests and streams are being destroyed and filled in order to create this "flat land" when already there are hundreds of thousands of acres of it lying fallow. Obviously, the demand just isn't there.
To create the landscape you see above, several miles of streams had to be buried. What you can't see is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this mining: the poisoning of the headwaters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers with Selenium, Total Dissolved Solids, Manganese, Iron, and alkaline or in some cases acid mine drainage.

Joe HagenDec 2 2010 02:22 PM

Ooops, sorry, I meant to address my comment to Mary, not Deb.

meg calDec 3 2010 02:39 PM

@mary - what you don't see in that pic is where there once was headwater, streams, trees, animals, etc....nor do you see the sludge pond (those 2 little areas that appear to be water could be them). everything that they remove has to be put somewhere and that's where we lose our streams and animal/plant life that are so important. strip mining also produces an extrememly toxic sludge that usually isn't properly contained/disposed of b/c, for some crazy reason (we all know who is at fault), the coal industry gets away with things that other industries do not. that sludge leaches toxic chemicals/compounds into the drinking water and gets into streams, which in turn affects humans and animals in the surrounding area as well as down stream. you should take a trip to one of these areas to see the actual devastation. if you use facebook, look up the "end mountaintop removal" page and take a look at the pics will clearly see why mountaintop removal is a sad and devastating occurrence.

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