In West Virginia, a Battle Over Mountaintop Mining

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MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR), referred to in coal the industry as mountaintop mining/valley fills is surface mining involving extreme change to the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. This photo shows a large mountaintop coal mining operation in West Virginia.

Pass through the handful of acres that make up Lindytown, W. Va., and you'll see empty houses, a boarded-up church, a town too minor to warrant its own post office. In this forgotten southern corner of the state, even the pine trees look sad.

But this desolate spot, like so many other abandoned small towns in Appalachia, is a gateway to hidden wealth. Deep within Boone County are rich seams of coal, holding some 3.6 billion tons of the black stuff and millions in profits — and much of it sits in Cherry Pond Mountain, a few miles from Lindytown. The largest coal-mining company in the region — Massey Energy, based in Richmond, Va. — has its eye on it.

Loud blasting began years ago. Massey and other large coal-producing companies like Patriot Coal, in St. Louis, employ a particularly destructive form of excavation called mountaintop mining, which exposes entire coal seams by blowing off a mountain's summit; used mostly in Appalachia, such mining produces 130 millions tons of coal in the region per year. It's less popular in other coal-rich spots such as Texas, where the coal is deeper underground and requires a different kind of mining to unearth. Coal companies say mountaintop mining is also cheaper than traditional mining: rather than burrowing under or digging through the "overburden" (the soil, trees and rock that lie on top of coal seams), which requires lots of manpower and expensive machinery, all you need to hit black gold in Appalachia are some explosives.

Some three million pounds of explosives are detonated each day in West Virginia for coal mining, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and the process shears up to 800 feet of elevation off each mountain peak, says Margaret Palmer, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. The black scars run visibly up the spine of the central Appalachians. And the explosions don't sound lightly: "When they put these blasts off, it's horrendous," says Maria Gunnoe, 41, of the community advocacy group Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who lives in Bob White, W. Va., 12 miles north of Lindytown. Tremors from the blasts shake houses from the ground up, and it rains sand, coal dust and other particles in surrounding areas, residents say.

Stuck Between a Rock and a Coal Mine

More than 100 representatives of community and environmental advocacy groups showed up in Washington earlier this month to lobby for stiffer government regulation of the mining industry and a ban on mountaintop mining. Recently, representatives of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining visited Appalachia to study the effects in the area. Such mining is devastating the environment, "polluting our streams, poisoning our air and destroying our culture and heritage," says Judy Bonds, co-director of the West Virginia–based Coal River Mountain Watch.

That may be true, but coal mining is not going away anytime soon. More than one-third of the coal burned in the U.S. is mined in the central Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from Tennessee to Ohio, and nearly half of the electricity used by Americans is powered by coal. Despite ongoing talk of a new clean energy economy — "Whoever builds a clean energy going to own the 21st-century global economy," President Barack Obama said at a meeting of governors in Washington in February — coal is too plentiful in the U.S. to be abandoned. The International Energy Agency projects that global demand for coal will increase 53% between 2007 and 2030, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has said that coal will continue to be a valuable domestic source of energy, especially if it can be burned cleanly.

Of course, clean coal technology does not diminish the environmental costs of extraction — to flora and fauna, and also to human well-being — say critics. Mountaintop mining destroys the natural habitats of many local species, whether endangered ones such as flying squirrels or flourishing ones like salamanders. Further, mountaintop debris that is dug up or displaced by explosions is dumped in the valleys below, burying headwater streams, killing the aquatic species that live in the waters and impacting downstream water supplies. About 1,200 miles of streams have been buried in this manner in central Appalachia, according to a 2003 federal study. "It's higher by now," says Bonds, given that mining activity has not slowed.

At a Senate hearing last June, Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) official Randy Pomponio, said that the extent of damage is not yet known: "We are just beginning to understand and assign value to these ecological services."

What can be measured are chemicals like arsenic, lead, mercury, magnesium and selenium that leach into water sources from mining waste. Toxins have been found in high concentrations downstream of mountaintop mining sites, killing fish and threatening human health, according to biologist Dennis Lemly of Wake Forest University. Some residents of the Lindytown area rely only on bottled spring water for drinking. "No, ma'am, we do not dare drink the tap water here," Bonds says adamantly.

If anti-mining activists cannot stop coal extraction altogether, they are hoping to appeal to the EPA to at least regulate it through the Clean Water Protection Act, which is currently sitting in the House. The bill would close a loophole in the Clean Water Act of 1972 and halt the burying of streams with coal debris, which would block further contamination. The EPA does not have the authority to regulate mountaintop mining, but it is responsible for preventing the practice from affecting water quality, said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson at the National Press Club in Washington. The EPA will "try to minimize, if not end, any environmental degradation to the water" caused by mining, she said. "We fight for clean water under the Clean Water Act. So our role is limited to ensuring that these [mining] projects, if they're approved, do not have a detrimental impact on clean water. We'll continue to do that."

The Emptying of Appalachia

In Lindytown, most area residents are long gone. They tell TIME they were muscled out of their homes by Massey, whose representatives pursued them aggressively, phoning and visiting often. By acquiring property in the area, the company has expanded operations — literally into remaining residents' backyards. Retired miner James Smith, 74, promised himself he would never sell out, but it didn't take long for the blasts less than a mile from his home to force him to leave. He caved in late 2009 and turned over his land — likely for a hefty sum. Spotted weeping at the local community bank, "he left a big part of him in Lindytown," says Gunnoe, whose grandfather worked with Smith. "If [the coal companies] can make life bad enough, people will be volunteering to leave."

Lindytown's neighbors in Twilight, just two miles up the main road, are beginning to share similar stories of being pressured to sell their property. "I've been to places like Whitesville, Lindytown. These are ghost towns, where Massey has come in and bought out the towns, forced out the residents and plowed them under," said environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to Don Blankenship, Massey's CEO, in a January debate at the University of Charleston on the hazards and benefits of mountaintop mining.

Massey characterizes the situation differently: "We were mining nearby and a lot of [Lindytown] residents approached us, interested in selling their homes," says company spokesperson Jeff Gillenwater; only then did Massey make offers to buy their property in an effort to protect residents' well-being. "We did it as an additional safety measure."

Public-health studies suggest that people who live in mountaintop mining areas have "higher rates of lung cancer, chronic lung, heart and kidney disease mortality [and] lower birth rates" than average, possibly caused by breathing in coal dust or absorbing harmful chemicals, says Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of community medicine at West Virginia University, who studies health effects from mining.

Overall, the environmental impact of mountaintop mining is so traumatic, says Palmer, that she and a team of engineers, ecologists and hydrologists recommended an end to the practice in a paper published in January in the journal Science. They dismiss federal and state laws, including the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which oblige companies to reclaim mined land, for example, by rehabilitating natural biodiversity or rebuilding the mountain to its approximate original contour. Massey has undertaken rehabilitation projects in the region, having already planted one million new trees in Central Appalachia — but critics say such efforts cannot undo the damage. It's the domino effect: initial damage from mining sets off an endless series of environmental consequences that are hard to trace, and even harder to fix. "The impacts appear to be permanent," says Palmer. "There is no evidence whatsoever that forest reclamation on mountaintop mine sites have been successful."

Although other types of surface or underground mining are less environmentally destructive than mountaintop mining, they're also more expensive, so companies like Massey are reluctant to alter current practices. Going forward, however, Massey has pledged to monitor water quality; periodically it assembles a 30-member environmental review arm to do so. The EPA is also keeping tabs on mining's impact, while Obama has pledged to support the development of clean energy. Activists like Bonds say attention from the top levels of the current administration helps them continue fighting at this crucial time. But for the former residents of Lindytown, W. Va., it may just be too little too late.