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Learn more about mountaintop removal coal mining

Hobet 21 Mining complex, West Virginia - photo by Vivian Stockman courtesy of is the product of 14 local, state, and regional organizations across Appalachia that are working together to end mountaintop removal coal mining and create a prosperous future for the region. Click here to read more about and the organizations that created it.


What is Mountaintop Removal?

Mountaintop removal is a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Primarily, mountaintop removal is occurring in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia are increasingly using this method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require.

The US Environmental Protection Agency defines mountaintop removal as follows:

“Mountaintop removal/valley fill is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.”

There are 6 main components of the mountaintop removal process:

CLEARING — Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not even used comercially in the rush to get the coal, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills.
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BLASTING — Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 500-800 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives.
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DIGGING — Coal and debris is removed by using this piece of machinery, called a dragline. A dragline stands 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars in its bucket. These machines can cost up to $100 million, but are favored by coal companies because they displace the need for hundreds of jobs. .
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DUMPING WASTE — The waste from the mining operation, also known as overburden or spoil, is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. According to an EPA environmental impact statement, more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams were permitted to be buried as of 2001.
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PROCESSING — The coal is washed and treated before it is loaded on trains. The excess water left over from this process is called coal slurry or sludge and is stored in open coal impoundments. Coal sludge is a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. Impoundments are held in place by mining debris, making them very unstable. .
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RECLAMATION — While reclamation efforts such as stabilization and revegetation are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, state agencies that regulate mining are generous with granting waivers to coal companies. Most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, but even the best reclamation provides no comfort to nearby families and communities whose drinking water supplies have been polluted and whose homes will be threatened by floods for the hundred or thousands of years it will require to re-grow a forest on the mined site.
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Where is mountaintop removal happening?

There are currently no federal or state agencies tracking the overall extent or cumulative impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, and so no maps of the actual extent are currently available. Figures from the multi-agency environmental impact statement that was completed in 2003 estimated that more than 700,000 acres in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee had been impacted, but were based on permit maps provided by coal companies. Permit maps, according to studies by the West Virginia Technical Application Geographic Information System, can underestimate the extent of valley fills by as much as 40%.

The maps below were produced by Appalachian Voices in August of 2006. The map to the left identifies more than 450 mountains and summits in Appalachia that have been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining (as defined by OSM in their 1985 EIS), and the map to the right shows most of the areas permitted for surface mining in Appalachia (note: these data are questionable, both because the permit maps provided by mining companies are unreliable and not all data are available from the state agencies that regulate the mining).

What are the effects of mountaintop removal on families and communities?

Even government agencies that regulate mountaintop removal agree that the effects on nearby homes and communities can be devastating. In their Mid-Atlantic Regional Assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency states:

“The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns.”

In addition to the frequent loss or pollution of drinking water, families living near mountaintop removal sites contend with:

FLOODING — Coalfield residents have long complained about drastic increases in flooding following mountaintop removal operations,. The coal industry maintains such floods are “Acts of God.” Researchers at the university of Kentucky recently concluded: “there is a clear risk of increased flooding (greater runoff production and less surface flow detention) following [mountaintop removal and valley fill] operations.”
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BLASTING — Families and communities near mountaintop removal sites are forced to contend with continual blasting from mining operations that can take place up to 300 feet from their homes and operate 24 hours a day. The impact of blasting not only makes life all but unlivable in nearby homes it also frequently cracks wells and foundations. Blasting can also send boulders flying hundreds of yards into roads and homes.
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SLUDGE DAMS — Sludge dams represent the greatest threat to nearby communities of any of the impacts of coal mining. Impoundments are notoriously leaky, contaminating drinking water supplies in many communities, and are also known to fail completely. A sludge dam breach in Martin County, KY, in 2000, sent more than 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy, causing what the EPA called, “The biggest environmental disaster ever east of the Mississippi.” .
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How does mountaintop removal affect the environment?

Mountaintop Removal is occurring right at the heart of one of the nation’s main hotspots of biological diversity. According to the Nature Conservancy, the mountain region including southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee contains some of the highest levels of biological diversity in the nation. This region is also at the headwaters of the drinking water supplies of many US cities. The maps below show hotspots of biodiversity based on a rarity-weighted index biological diversity produced by the Nature Conservancy, as well as the major river systems with headwaters in the Appalachian coalfields.

Unfortunately, there is little information on the cumulative impacts of mountaintop removal because the federal agencies that are charged with regulating coal mining have refused to track the overall extent and impacts of mountaintop removal. The one attempt at a comprehensive analysis of MTR by government agencies was presented in a multi-agency Environmental Impact Statement that was completed in 2003. This effort was initiated in the late 90s, but the focus of the EIS was revised after the White House changed hands in 2001. According to the Charleston Gazette:

“When it formally kicked off the project in February 1999, the EPA said the goal was “to consider developing agency policies … to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable the adverse environmental effects” of mountaintop removal. By October 2001, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, had ordered the project refocused toward “centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.”

Cindy Tibbot, a FWS biologist involved in the EIS process, was one of many agency scientists who expressed outrage about Griles’ directive, stating in an internal memo:

“It’s hard to stay quiet about this when I really believe we’re doing the public and the heart of the Clean Water Act a great disservice.”

As Tibbot put it, the only alternatives offered in Griles’ proposed EIS would be:

“alternative locations to house the rubber stamp that issues the [mining] permits.”

While the EIS did compile a lot of disparate information on the effects and extent of MTR, the analysis was based on mining permit maps. According to satellite analysis done by Michael Shank at the TAGIS center of the West Virginia DEP, however, those permit maps are underestimating the extent of valley fill in 6 West Virginia coal counties by about 40%. Thus, the entire EIS is based on verifiably faulty data.

Despite its many flaws, however, the multi-agency environmental impact statement did provide some useful information on the extent and impacts of mountaintop removal. Here are some of the impacts and concerns expressed in the final EPA report:

  • More than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001.
  • Over 1000 miles of streams have been permitted to be buried in valley fills. (for scale, this is a greater distance than the length of the entire Ohio River).
  • Mountaintop removal mining, if it continues unabated, will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres by the end of the decade-an area the size of Delaware-with a concomitant severe impact on fish, wildlife, and bird species, not to mention a devastating effect on many neighboring communities.
  • 800+ square miles of mountains are estimated to be already destroyed. (this is equal to a one-quarter mile wide swath of destruction from New York to San Francisco – it is also significantly underestimated).

Other quotes from the 2003 report include:

  • “… studies found that the natural return of forests to mountaintop mines reclaimed with grasses under hay and pasture or wildlife post-mining land uses occurs very slowly. Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years.”
  • “Because it is difficult to intercept groundwater flow, it is difficult to reconstruct free flowing streams at mountaintop removal sites.”
  • “Stream chemistry monitoring efforts show significant increases in conductivity, hardness, sulfate, and selenium concentrations downstream of [mountaintop removal] operations.”

How does mountaintop removal affect the economy?

Mountaintop removal is a mining technique designed, from the very start, to take the labor force out of the mining operation. According to the bureau of labor statistics, in the early 1950′s there were between 125,000 and 145,000 miners employed in West Virginia; in 2004 there were just over 16,000. During that time, coal production increased. In addition, the coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

Poverty Rates and Surface Mining in Appalachia Population Change and Surface Mining in Appalachia
Per Capita Market Income and Surface Mining in Appalachia Unemployment rates and Surface Mining in Appalachia

How does mountaintop removal affect America’s energy future?

According to the EPA, mountaintop removal accounted for less than 5% of US coal production as of 2001. According to a report from the US Geologic Survey in 2000, the Appalachian coal basin will not continue providing coal for much longer anyway. The report states:

“Sufficient high-quality, thick, bituminous resources remain in [Appalachian Basin] coal beds and coal zones to last for the next one to two decades at current production.”

The report goes on to say that the major Appalachian coal beds:

“already have peaked in production and the remaining coal is deeper (>1,000 ft), thinner (<3.5 ft), and (or) contains environmentally less desirable medium-to-high ash yields and sulfur contents."

The graphs below from the USGS show the decreasing proportion of American coal coming from the Appalachian coal beds as well as the high overburden to coal ratio for one of the main coal beds in the Appalachian Basin (note: the areas with low overburden to coal ratios have mostly been mined already)


In short, we are destroying one of America’s national treasures for a small fraction of our energy supply that will last for only a few decades.

What can the US government do to stop mountaintop removal?

US. House of Representatives – Support the Clean Water Protection Act

What are individual States doing to break their connection to mountaintop removal?

North Carolina connections to mountaintop removal coal mining 2002-2006

STATE CONNECTIONS – This map shows some of the connections between coal-fired power plants and the mountaintop removal mines that supply them with coal. To see a map of the states who are taking action, download this Google Earth file.

In most states where mountaintop removal coal is used to generate electricity, the actual mining is not taking place. The connection between flipping on a light switch and the blasting of one of the world’s oldest mountains is not one many consumers make. In 2009, citizens and legislators in several states are trying to change that. In unprecedented moves, the top 2 consumers of mountaintop removal coal (Georgia and North Carolina) introduced bills banning the use mountaintop removal mined coal in their states. But they are not the only ones. Here is the list, so far… ;)

Where can I learn more about mountaintop removal?

The organizations partnering on this website and our allied organizations have many further resources on the web about mountaintop removal. Click here to see a list of links to those organizations.

Appalachian Voices  •  Coal River Mountain Watch  •   Heartwood  •  Keeper of the MountainsKentuckians for the Commonwealth 

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  •   Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowermentSierra Club Environmental Justice

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards  •   SouthWings  •  Stay Project  •   West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

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