— Junior Walk of West Virginia
Mountaintop removal coal mining, often described as "strip mining on steroids," is an extremely destructive form of mining that is devastating Appalachia. In just a few decades, more than 2,400 miles of streams and headwaters that provide drinking water for millions have been permanently buried and destroyed.
Mountaintop removal mining devastates the landscape, turning areas that should be lush with forests and wildlife into barren moonscapes.
Huge machines, called "draglines," push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, forever burying waterways.
The massive dragline in the photo, which can weigh up to 12 million pounds and be as big as an entire city block, is dwarfed by the scale of this devastation.
In the past few decades, an area the size of Delaware has been flattened.
Coal companies first raze an entire mountainside, ripping trees from the ground and clearing brush with huge tractors. This debris is then set ablaze as deep holes are dug for explosives.
Explosive is poured into these holes and mountaintops are literally blown apart. As much as 800 to 1,000 feet are blasted off the tops of mountains order to reach thin coal seams buried deep below.
Debbie Jarrell is the co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a small nonprofit organization working in communities impacted by the irresponsible practices of the coal industry in southern West Virginia.
Debbie shares her memories of the first time she saw aerial views of mountaintop removal mining:
"I could not believe the expanse of it. I had seen pictures, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the expanse of the mountaintop removal sites in our area.
"How small I felt at that time, and how ashamed I was that I would allow something like that to happen around my granddaughter. That’s when my eyes were opened."
Read Debbie's entire Mountain Story and see more photos at the Mountain Heroes campaign.
In 1971, Time magazine said of mountaintop removal mining sites, “the bleakest landscape in the U.S. can be found where miners have torn away the earth's surface to get at coal deposits.”
Yet, for all of this destruction, a relatively small amount of coal is produced. Best estimates for the percent of U.S. coal produced by mountaintop removal range from 5% to 10%. (Source: “Environmental Regulations To Curtail Mountaintop Mining,” The Washington Post, 2010.)
Mountaintop removal mining uses an explosive mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, commonly called ANFO.
Communities located near mountaintop removal sites have reported having their homes bombarded with rocks and other dangerous projectiles from blasting.
Lisa Henderson lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. She was born in a town that went vacant because of pollution from nearby mountaintop removal mining, and was raised under the wing of one country’s most ardent and outspoken advocates of environmental justice, Judy Bonds.
"Sometimes when you get involved in something, you don’t even know what you’re doing, except that you’re fighting for survival. To us, that’s what we were doing: fighting for survival."
See photos of Lisa and her mother Judy at the Mountain Heroes campaign.
Flooding in communities near mountaintop removal sites is becoming more common and more deadly. Residents say that flooding that happened once a decade is now happening two and three times a year.
As mountains are cleared of trees and other vegetation, rainwater that usually would be caught in these natural filters is running unabated into oversaturated streams.
In 2000, the mountain ridge above Mountain Hero and Goldman Prize recipient Maria Gunnoe’s home became a mountaintop removal coal mining site. She and her family withstood ground-shaking explosions, clouds of harmful dust, severe floods, and poisonous contamination of the drinking water in their home, which was eventually destroyed by a flood.
The coal company told her it was an "act of God."
Polluted Cabin Creek, near Leewood, West Virginia.
Polluted runoff from valley fills creates a bright, unnatural color on the surrounding rock.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has approved mountaintop removal mining permits that require very few protections for nearby streams and headwaters, violating the Clean Water Act and destroying more than 1,200 miles of waterways in West Virginia alone.
Junior Walk of West Virginia travels the country with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, educating people about the long-term environmental, health and community degradation caused by coal mining.
Junior: "When I walked up on that ridge the first day, it took my breath away. Working as a security guard, I had to sit there for 12 hours a day and see them tearing down that mountain.
"I just felt like the most miserable human being you could ever imagine, making money off of that. That money was coming out of that mountain, and I knew the suffering of those people that lived down below that mountain. I knew how it was, because I went through it myself. I knew I had to do something."
Read Junior's complete story and see more photos at the Mountain Heroes campaign.
Coal River flows through Kanawha County in West Virginia.
Junior continues: "People ask me why I don’t just leave this area. I’ve always said that I’d just as soon live in a shack on the Coal River than in a mansion on Wall Street … this place here just has this air about it—it’s beautiful.
"You can’t understand unless you’ve been here. Take a drive up a hollow, and you’re surrounded by this canopy of trees and mountain creeks. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s worth fighting for."
Watch Junior Walk in the video "Stand Up and Join My Fight"
More than 2,400 miles of Appalachian streams are estimated to have been destroyed by mountaintop removal mining to date. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010.)
Bo, a Vietnam War veteran, was one of the community members who helped move Marsh Fork Elementary School out from under a 2.8 billion gallon sludge dam.
Bo: "Growing up on Coal River has been one the greatest blessings in my life. From spring until winter we fished and camped up and down the river. From the mountains above we gathered wild leeks, mushrooms, ginseng, blackberries, raspberries, yellow root, and wild greens."
Read Bo's complete story and see more photos at the Mountain Heroes online campaign.
Black coal is processed and cleaned in this West Virginia processing plant.
Coal mining in the region destroys mountains and forests, and also creates a witches brew of toxic chemicals in containment ponds like the one shown here.
Bo Webb: "We are now learning that our garden soil is contaminated. We have shocking scientific health data—currently 19 scientific, peer reviewed research papers on health and coal mining, six of which are specific to mountaintop removal coal mining—but our state government is still unwilling to conduct health research."
In the spring of 2009, Amber moved to be with family in the small mountain town of Ameagle, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.
Amber: "When I first came here, I had heard of mountaintop removal mining, but I didn’t understand the practices. Then, as we took shortcuts around the valley and came across these sites, I started to actually see mountaintop removal with my own eyes.
"The first time I saw it,
I didn’t believe it."
Amber tells her story in the video, Make A Difference. Join My Fight.
Amber continues: "We need to end mountaintop removal for the health and safety of West Virginians.
"My little brother is the next generation, and he is going to grow up with this all around him. He deserves clean air.
"It seems hopeless at times, but it’s not. I have to remind myself that it will get better as long as I keep fighting."
Most people in Appalachia don't want mountaintop removal mining. Opposition to mountaintop removal dwarfs support, 57% to 20%, across Appalachia. (Source: Lake Research Associates and Bellwether Research, Poll on Mountaintop Removal Mining in Appalachia, 2011)
250 million cubic yards of toxic mining waste goes into one valley fill. That's equal to the amount of debris generated by 2.5 Hurricane Katrinas. (Source: Copeland, “Mountaintop Mining: Background on Current Controversies,” Congressional Research Service, 2010.)
Born and raised in Sylvester, WV, along the Coal River, Chuck Nelson serves as chairman of the board for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and vice president of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation.
Chuck: "Being a coal miner, I depended on coal to raise the family. But I knew when I went into the underground mine, I was sacrificing my own health. It was my choice, as an underground coal miner.
"But mountaintop removal mining is different, because it affects whole communities—people who don’t get a choice in the matter."
Hear Chuck tell his story in the video, Wake Up and Do Something Positive.
Kayford Mountain, a mountaintop removal mining site, is adjacent to this lush West Virginian landscape.
Mountaintop removal mining is decimating the nation's oldest and most biodiverse mountains, the Appalachians. (Source: Braun, "Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America," 1950.)
1,408,372 acres of rich forest have been cut down already by Appalachian surface mining operations. That's 2,200 square miles, or roughly the size of Delaware. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010.)
Kayford Mountain bears the devastating scars of mountaintop removal mining.
Larry Gibson worked tirelessly for three decades to secure justice for communities across Appalachia. He was threatened, brutalized, burglarized and vandalized for his outspoken activism, and he lost most of his beloved home place, Kayford Mountain, to mountaintop removal mining.
Larry hung on to a small patch of green, verdant land, but more than that, he hung on to his hope for a better future for others.
Larry passed away from a heart attack on September 9, 2012, while working at his beloved Kayford Mountain.
When he saw mountaintop removal mining raze the mountain all around his home and family’s land on Kayford Mountain, Larry Gibson became one of the nation’s first people to speak out.
Larry said: "I first set out to save my mountain, Kayford Mountain. By establishing a land trust, we saved our piece of it forever.
"Now, I fight to save all mountains, and all the people living in them. Because this movement can’t be about just me. It can’t be about just this mountain. It has to be about the people who don’t have a say, like our children and grandchildren."
Larry tells his story in the video, A Hero Doesn't Get Used to This.
An explosion at a mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford.
From Larry's Keeper of the Mountains Foundation website:
"Larry and his family used to live on the lowest lying part of the mountain, and looked 'up' to the mountain peaks that surrounded them.
"Since 1986, the slow motion destruction of Kayford Mountain has been continuous—24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eighteen years after the 'mountaintop removal' project began, Larry Gibson's home now occupies the highest point of land around; he is enveloped by more than 7,500 acres of destruction of what was previously a forested mountain range."
"My name is Larry Gibson, and I’m standing on top of my family’s land on Kayford Mountain. All around me in every direction on this very mountain is mountaintop removal mining. This family land is an island of rich green in a sea of barren wasteland.
"They say I have 39 seams of coal here, underneath our land. They also say this land is worth $650 million to the coal industry. But there’s not enough money that’s been printed or made that can buy this place. There are some things money shouldn’t be able to buy."
Read Larry's complete story and see more photos at the Mountain Heroes campaign.
Larry said, "My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life.
"Just a stone’s throw away, on that mountaintop removal mining site, you couldn’t find anything alive if you wanted to. It’s bare rock, uninhabitable.
"With mountaintop removal, the companies get all the coal. They leave nothing behind, except medical problems for people nearby."
"I just can't get used to it," Larry said.
"The truth is, my heroes are the people who don't get used to it. The one that gets used to it is the one that won't do anything about it. I pray to God I got a lot of heroes."
Local activists, like Larry, represent generations of coal miners and Appalachians. Community groups are growing as neighbors stand up to defend their land and their heritage.
Larry Gibson opened his land to all who wanted to come and see, first hand, the destruction caused by mountaintop removal.
Larry: "People are starting to listen, especially our youth. I hear older folks constantly say that our kids today don’t have direction. I disagree.
"I’ve spoken to young kids from one end of this country to the other. If you give them the information, and they see mountaintop removal mining, you won’t be able to stop them from trying to end it. And I know we will end it together."
Earthjustice has been in the courts and in Congress on behalf of local and national environmental and community groups to stop this destructive practice and protect Appalachia for future generations.