skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Rob Perks’s Blog

Mountaintop Prison a Bust

Rob Perks

Posted July 6, 2010

, , , , , ,
Share | | |

NRDC recently released a report -- Reclamation FAIL -- that debunked the coal industry's propaganda that mountaintop removal mining is beneficial because (1) Appalachia needs more flat land and (2) flattened mine sites are routinely converted for economic development.  Such claims are nothing more than a big, flat lie.

Specifically, NRDC’s analysis used aerial imagery to show that nearly 90% of mountaintop removal sites have not been converted to economic uses.  Of the 500 mountaintop removal sites we examined, we excluded 90 from our survey due to active, ongoing mining activity.  That left 410 supposedly reclaimed mine sites, for which we found that:

  • Overall, economic activity occurs on just 6% to 11% of all reclaimed mountaintop removal sites on sites we surveyed
  • 366 (89.3%) had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture
  • 26 (6.3% of total) yield some form of verifiable post-mining economic development

In terms of actual economic development on post-mined lands, one of those 26 "beneficial" projects is a federal prison on what used to be Belcher Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia.  You can actually take a look at the site using GoogleEarth by clicking here

When it comes to economic development on former mountaintops, this is considered a big deal.  Although the coal industry paints a vision of gleaming shopping malls and subdivisions on every flattened peak, the sad reality is that a prison is about the best kind of building project a community can hope for after a mining operation shuts down.  Unfortunately, this particular jail is not exactly a jackpot for the local economy.

Despite the promise of 300 local jobs, local officials reportedly are "disappointed" that only 12 residents of McDowell County have been hired to work at the prison.

For this the mining company was allowed to raze a precious Appalachian peak?  Come to think of it, I suggest the jail would be a good place for those coal executives to spend the rest of their days.  If they're lucky, they might score a room with a beautiful view of the remaining mountains. 

Share | | |


Spencer HillJul 7 2010 09:21 AM

I find the NRDC's argument extremely biased and flawed against mountain top removal reclamation as economic development.
1) what type of industry are you going to put in a low population density area. You do not need subdivisions and shopping malls in areas with less than 500 people per square mile.
2) what is wrong with sustainable forestry as economic development. It creates jobs for foresters , loggers, and mill workers. Timberland is a great long term investment ask the Harvard and Yale endowments (they achieved 8% or better return)
3) pasture land helps with the localvore initiative of animal husbandry-I guess because it is not in a place like Chapel Hill or New England its a bad thing.
4) Federal Prison is a neutral economic development - it creates jobs that people transfer in and out every two years- well paying jobs that help local services-fed prison system buys the employee's house if it doesn't sell-help's increase local home values increasing tax base.
No it doesn't create a Google campus, but those wouldn't exist there anyhow.

M. WojtowiczJul 7 2010 10:30 PM

I surely understand we need jobs, but with mountain top removal there are hundreds of miles of streams lost, buried 500 to 600 feet underground. Never to be regained in many a life time. Forests that will take a very long time to be re-established.

I try to look at both sides, but greed and the almighty dollar make it very hard. When we screw up this planet, where do think we're going?

CoalJul 9 2010 01:16 PM

The song "Coal War" by Joshua James describes this situation perfectly.

Even though you might put a business in place atop a commercial scar, it doesn't justify the development of the scar in the first place. Many businesses thrive in areas of low population densities, and without the degradation of our natural treasures, some even repair damage already created by unwise and irresponsible business practice. It's akin to suggesting that we should relocate Abe Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial to the Badlands of South Dakota or the Great Basin in Wyoming to justify a new parking garage: the place would never be the same.

The topsoil will never return to Appalachia. It will never return to the mountain from which it was unwillingly taken, and it is no less a treasure than any of the monuments of the National Mall. The topsoil will never return to Appalachia without direct action, lots of money and a little bit of creative vision. Our topsoil will never return to our mountains because we’re flushing it down the creeks to the rivers and on out into the gulf, an abuse of the privilege of being granted the honor to take care of it. When our soldiers fight they die fighting for that soil, the soil that connects us to each other; good soil, American soil, sacred soil, soil millions of years in the making, a soil we should all be proud of.
We all walk on that same soil, that American soil, more precious than oil, preserved by the blood of our sacrifices on foreign sand. Mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, fathers, we all share a single common element. We roam the same firmament, undivided; connected by the skin of the earth beneath us and we were asked to watch over her, and we treating her with disrespect by scarring her beautiful skin. We need to stop, do an about face, and stop mining coal, in favor of a brighter future. We need to take personal responsibility for our past and man up to the task of fixing it and we need to do it now, before the topsoil never returns to Appalachia, before her people are forced away by entrenched poverty, refugees from environmental poverty. Haiti.

Music studios would thrive in the quietude of the Appalachian hills. Ask Naomi Judd. Ask Lorreta Lynn. Ask Kathy Mattea. Maybe we should build more of them. That’s one. Artists do their best work in solitude. That’s another. In Morehead Ky. there’s even a satellite telescope that regularly employs astrophysicists full time, some of who were educated at Morehead State University. It has to be so far out in the woods that the light doesn’t affect its operation, and that’s pretty far out. That’s three businesses that bring economic prosperity to an impoverished region. The fact is that many businesses thrive in Appalachia that don’t bring poverty and devastation, we just don’t coddle them like we do the coal industry, but we should. Maybe we should let the coal industry survive on private equity money, a new welfare to work program, the same type of structure that Americas poorest are required to endure, some of who even live in Appalachia. Maybe we should give coal companies five months to get off the dole and cut em’ loose to fend for themselves. We’ll funnel all that money into the repair of the mountains they’ve destroyed, a big WPA style hoedown, complete with jobs and money for a greater majority of Appalachia, her citizens. The rush for jobs from the winds of economic shift would blow your hat off. People would flock to Eastern Ky. and West Virginia to work above ground rather than below it, repairing the devastation left by coal subsidies. Maybe we should.

Cattle farming as economic stimmulous? Maybe if you feed them to the prisoners in cell block C of the ‘local’ federal prison built with public money by out of state contractors and then given to private companies who get fat incarcerating local methanphetamine dealers and deadbeat dads, byproducts of the coal centric Appalachian economy. They’re local. Feeding them local cows from bad pastureland is cheap and local. That must make it twice as local. It stimulates the personal economies of the coal companies in the name of restoration. They get their bond money back, leave the mess behind and spread the mess into another community, a growing cancer, our greatest national crisis. It is our greatest national disgrace but it helps provide jobs to all those young cow pokes growing up in the Kentucky Coal Lodge at the University of Kentucky, the promise of jobs, fulfilled. And what of trees and sustainable forestry? 8% returns over how many years? Maybe we’d be smarter to loan money to the credit card companies. They’re getting at least %30 over a much shorter period. Chase even loans it out to the coal industry to create new jobs two counties over from where the coal ran out last week.

Since you asked, I’ll tell you: I’m putting my money into growing topsoil and oxygen, into replacing coal with local sources, with long term local jobs that benefit the real local economy. Every dollar invested in the Coal War has three fold spiraling returns in areas with fewer than 500 people per square mile and 50 years from now, every square mile will still be there, a guarded national treasure, a place where we could proudly move the Lincoln memorial, a national sculpture garden with bike trails and income. Enough nostalgia about the good old days and what we used to do for a living: youth is wasted on the young and federal money given to coal is curdled milk. It provides no quality of life for Appalachia or her people. It only returns more debt, the cost of which is rising. We should withdraw our money from the coal industry and direct it toward a coal free future. We should do it yesterday. We should do it now. Maybe we should do it before the next Appalachian miner dies, or before the next Appalachian father goes to jail, or before the next Appalachian baby is exposed to a kettle of meth in his kitchen. Maybe we should. Maybe we should do invest all of the resources available into the cleanup of the Appalachian Coal Disaster before the topsoil never returns to Appalachia and the lights go out for good.

CoalJul 9 2010 01:26 PM

The above comment was submitted by Coal War not Coal.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Rob Perks’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In