In the United States, 100 tons of coal are extracted every two seconds. Around 70 percent of that coal comes from strip mines, and over the last 20 years, an increasing amount comes from mountaintop-removal sites in Appalachia.
Mountaintop removal is one of the most egregious environmental and social justice disasters in America today. This extreme mining practice, taking place largely in the Appalachians, has destroyed at least 500 mountains (1.5 million acres of land) resulting in a huge amount of largely unreported ecological damage and countless ruined lives.
The EPA estimates that over 700 miles of healthy streams have been completely buried by mountaintop removal with thousands more damaged. Where a highly braided system of headwater streams once flowed, now a vast circuitry of haul roads winds through the rubble.
Moreover, the problem is getting worse. As activist and author Jeff Biggers wrote yesterday on the Huffington Post, "We've reached a new landmark in the central Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southwest Virginia: Over 500 mountains in one of the most diverse forests in the Americas--the same kind of mountains that garner protection and preservation status in a blink of an eye in other regions---have now been eliminated from our American maps."
Dave Roberts of Grist detailed the brutality of mountaintop removal in a guest post at TheNation.com last year: "Mountain ridges and peaks are clear-cut, stripped of all trees and other flora. Explosives are buried underground, and enormous blasts dislodge millions of tons of rock, dirt, soil, and animal and plant life. That "overburden" is then carted away or dumped into the stream and creek beds in the mountain hollows below, destroying or polluting thousands of miles of running water. Huge 20-story-tall draglines pull away the rock to expose coal seams. Similarly huge machines then yank the coal out and dump the remaining waste down into those streams."
The results? Entire mountains literally blown up, devastating hundreds of square miles of Appalachia; the pollution of the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water for millions of Americans; and the destruction of a distinctly American culture.
Other consequences? Sick children, according to an Eastern Kentucky University study which found that children in Letcher County, Ky. suffer from an alarmingly high rate of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath that can be traced back to sedimentation and dissolved minerals from mine sites. Long-term effects include liver, kidney, and spleen failure, bone damage, and cancers of the digestive tract. (Erik Reece heartbreakingly detailed the human cost in an exhaustive piece on Mountaintop removal in Orion magazine in 2006.)
Last May, the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) was introduced to the 110th Congress with 55 original co-sponsors to undo some of this damage. The bill is critical to protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents and to ensure the safety of the nation's water supply. This year with a friendlier administration and Congress, there's a real chance to pass the H.R. 1310 in the 111th Congress. Please voice your support for ending mountaintop removal coal mining.
Bonus Video: This video, from ilovemountains.org, features residents from the Coal River Mountain region making a powerful case that maintaining the mountains and responsible mining are not mutually exclusive.