Mountaintop removal has become an increasingly contentious issue over the past several decades, particularly in the southern United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by the end of 2010, 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forests will have been disturbed or cleared by mountaintop removal, an area larger than Delaware. And a recent decision by the Army Corp of Engineers has suspended fast-track permitting for mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia. But why is this mining practice so controversial? Where is it taking place? And what impact is it having on forests?
What is Mountaintop Removal?
Mountaintop removal is a surface mining technique in which explosives are used to remove large areas of mountaintops in order to access underlying coal seams. Before explosives can be used, however, the land must be cleared of all vegetation, including trees and topsoil. After the vegetation is removed, excess rock, debris, and mining byproducts are pushed into adjacent valleys, where they bury existing streams. Coal companies employ this mining method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams and requires fewer workers than conventional mining. In the United States, mountaintop removal is concentrated in the central Appalachia, an area that includes southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. This area produces 33% of all U.S. coal, 40% of which comes from surface mining.