Not Our Mountaintops!

Over the past 150 years of coal mining in Appalachia there have been dramatic shifts in the size of mines and the way coal is extracted. Mountaintop Removal (MTR) coal mining in particular involves blasting mountains apart to extract an entire coal seam. This destructive practice forever changes the landscape, and has already disrupted many human lives and mountain watersheds in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and more recently in Tennessee. SOCM wants to prevent any more mountaintop removal in Tennessee and is working with allies throughout central Appalachia to stop MTR throughout the region.

Over the past 150 years of coal mining in Appalachia there have been dramatic shifts in the size of mines and the way coal is extracted. Mountaintop Removal (MTR) coal mining in particular involves blasting mountains apart to extract an entire coal seam. This destructive practice forever changes the landscape, and has already disrupted many human lives and mountain watersheds in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and more recently in Tennessee. SOCM wants to prevent any more mountaintop removal in Tennessee and is working with allies throughout central Appalachia to stop MTR throughout the region.

Cross Ridge Mining Versus Mountaintop Removal

Much mountaintop removal for coal in Tennessee involves cross ridge mining. In traditional mountaintop removal mining, the coal operator applies for a variance from the federal rule that requires the approximate original contour of the mountain to be restored. The mine operator can then push tons of fractured rock into huge valley fills and leave the mined area virtually flat. In cross ridge mining, companies can blow the mountaintops up, but have to pile the rubble back onto the mined surface to give it the general shape it had before. However, in steeper terrain, federal guidelines allow for 20’ wide terraces every 50’. We never really get the full elevation or unique character of the mountain back.

Alterations of Headwaters by Mountaintop Removal Mining

It’s true that cross ridge mining operations tend to rely on fewer and smaller fills. But the consequence of dumping whole mountaintop loads of spoil back onto the mined surface brings a whole new set of concerns, such as erosion, risk of slope failure, and alterations of hydrology in streams and aquifers.

More than 700 miles of streams in Central Appalachian have been buried by mountaintop removal operations since 1985, and an additional 1,200 miles of streams have been disrupted. The removal of a mountaintop essentially destroys the upper reaches of watersheds. In order to store mine spoil and other waste generated by the mining operation, coal operators fill and reroute waterways, creating man-made storm water channels and huge sediment control ponds in the place of mountain streams.

The disturbance of large amounts of land in steep slope areas inevitably washes mine spoil down the mountain. To keep storm water from carrying sediment into streams, surface mine operators usually construct sediment basins, but in mountaintop removal mining there is really no safe place to construct them. Basins on the mining bench are likely to fail and slide down steep slopes. Some mine plans include “in stream” sediment basins that impound a stream, allowing sediment to collect behind the impoundment structure. Instead of protecting streams from sediment pollution, these basins fill streams with sediment.

Large-scale disturbance of deep rock structure by mountaintop removal mining also exposes huge amounts of fractured rock to interactions with air and water that alter stream chemistry. Streams below valley fills often show significant increases in conductivity, hardness, and concentrations of sulfate and selenium, a big problem for people living downstream from mountaintop removal mining operations.

For many years people have assumed that headwaters—small streams, creeks, springs and seeps that may be dry for months at a time—did not support aquatic life and thus were expendable. In fact, headwaters support rich assemblages of living organisms, some of which have adapted specifically to life in temporary flow conditions. Natural disturbance such as seasonal flow alteration helps maintain ecosystem function and biodiversity, but there is a huge difference between natural disruptions and the ravage of entire headwater areas by mountaintop removal mining. This type of mining is killing Appalachian streams.

Hard work by SOCM and other coalfield organizations in the 1970’s brought many destructive surface mining operations under state and federal regulation. But legislative activity in chambers of local, state and federal government continues to threaten headwaters far from the watersheds through which they flow. In 2002, a change in the language of the Clean Water Act—at the direction of the Bush Administration and without Congressional approval—allowed mine waste to be dumped into streams. In 2006 and 2007, bills in the Tennessee legislature proposed to alter the definition of waters of the state under the Water Quality Control Act, and define them in a way that essentially removed some headwater streams from protection under this law. SOCM understands that federal and state proposals such as these place headwater streams at risk, and could open the door for more mountaintop removal in Tennessee.

In 40 years of experience with strip mining, SOCM members have seen how surface mining alters surface and ground water supplies, not only in Tennessee, but also throughout Appalachia and other coal-producing regions of the United States. As we continue to work toward elimination of mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee, SOCM will continue to anchor grassroots organizing strategies in larger principles of sustainable energy and water resource use. We see such an approach as the most reliable and socially just way to strengthen protection for headwaters, and the watershed communities through which they flow.

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