Mountaintop Removal: A View From Up Above

Recently, thanks to a nonprofit flight operation called SouthWings, I had the opportunity to fly in a small airplane over a mountaintop removal coal mining site in West Virginia. We flew over the Hobet mountaintop removal mining site, which measures to more than 20 square miles of demolition, and though I will try to put

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Recently, thanks to a nonprofit flight operation called SouthWings, I had the opportunity to fly in a small airplane over a mountaintop removal coal mining site in West Virginia.

We flew over the Hobet mountaintop removal mining site, which measures to more than 20 square miles of demolition, and though I will try to put what I saw into words, it can only really be understood through the eyes. So I’m sharing a few photos that illustrate a scale of destruction that words cannot convey.


Click on the Images Below to see a Full-View Gallery

Taking the Mountain from the Coal

The Appalachian Mountains are home to some of the world’s most biodiverse hardwood forests, and are the origins of some of the nation’s most important drinking water sources. Before mountaintop removal mining, coal companies took the coal from the mountain. Today, they are taking the mountain from the coal.


People Get in the Way of Coal Mining

Families had been living in these mountains for generations before coal companies figured out a way to blow up the mountain to cheaply extract the coal. The Caudill-Miller family has owned this farm for a hundred years, but now it is engulfed by Arch Coal’s destruction. As Arch Coal’s machines were encroaching upon the property and the farmhouse, built in 1920, the coal company attempted to buy the property from the family. The Caudill-Millers would not sell. In an attempt to force them out of its way, the company sued the family, claiming that mountaintop removal mining was the best use of the land. A court ruled in favor of Arch Coal, but the Caudill-Millers kept fighting and won the appeal, which allowed them to hold onto their family’s land. But they still could not stop the devastation on all sides of them.


Moving a Mountain

Flattening mountain is no simple process. First, the forests are clear cut, and the trees are pushed into a tremendous pile, where they are either hauled away by timber companies, burned, or dumped into the valley below as “mining waste.” All of the life that existed within the forest is extinguished. Then comes the task of moving the top of the mountain. It involves detonating hundreds of tons of explosives to break apart the mountain’s surface and loosen the layers of rock beneath.


Filling the Valleys

For every ton of coal that’s mined, approximately 16 tons of earth need to be moved. This can result in tens of millions of tons of rock and rubble, which is dumped into the valleys surrounding the mountains, burying streams and creating “valley fills.” In this picture, you can see the beginnings of a valley fill, just to the right of the airplane part. Valley fills are permitted by a loophole in the Clean Water Act that was written in the beginning of George W. Bush’s administration.


Move Over Human Miners, Big John Is Here

In mountaintop removal mining, jobs once held by people are replaced by machines. A dragline excavator measuring eight-ten stories tall and capable of moving hundreds of metric tons of rubble obsoletes numerous mining jobs. Here, the dragline on the Hobet site, nicknamed “Big John,” does the work. Coinciding with the rise of mountaintop removal, the number of coal miners in Appalachia declined from 122,102 to 53,509 between 1985 and 2005, proving false the argument that this kind of mining provides jobs. In fact, the highest levels of unemployment and lowest incomes are located in the parts of Appalachia where the heaviest mining takes place. There are more public school teachers in West Virginia than surface miners.


The Imposing Sludge Dam

When the coal leaves the site, it must be washed and prepared to be shipped off to coal-fired power plants. After washing the coal, what remains is a thick, toxic brew of liquid waste called “slurry” or “sludge.” This sludge is so harmful, so toxic, and so latent with heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel, that instead of treating it, it is easier for the coal companies to dispose of into large earthen, unlined dams high in the mountains. The sludge dams, now numbering more than 500 across Appalachia today, often tower high above communities, holding back billions of tons of poisonous sludge. For communities nearby, these dams may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind. Sludge dam failures are a real threat that residents nearby live with every day. In 1972, a sludge dam in Buffalo Creek, WV, failed, and a tidal wave of toxic sludge killed 118 people almost instantly. More than 4,000 others lost their homes. In 2000, another sludge dam burst in Martin County, KY, setting off a 12-million gallon wave of toxic black, lava-like sludge that swallowed up communities and homes. Residents say the spill continues to contaminate their waters even now, 11 years later.


Like Putting Lipstick on a Pig

After the site is mined, coal companies are supposed to then begin the process of “reclaiming” the land for development. However, 90 percent of mountaintop removal sites have not been converted to any kind of economic use. And the land, after being stripped and razed to expose heavy metals, cannot sustain most forms of life, save a few varieties of extremely tough non-native grasses. So when they are finished, the coal companies coat the mined surface with turquoise-hued hydroseed and fertilizer, which gives way to weed-like grasses in short order. The grass gives the appearance of life, even though the mountain’s life has been wiped away forever, and attempts to veil the barren moonscape that has been created.


This pictures shows only a portion of the Hobet complex’s expansive obliteration, now more than 20 square miles in size. Over the last 10 years, the site’s size has nearly doubled. NASA has a time-lapse slideshow that illustrates just how quickly this has happened. What will this look like in 10 more years? What will West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia look like in 10 years?

Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.