The Poverty of Mountaintop Removal Mining

Associate Attorney Neil Gormley took a trip to West Virginia to visit partners and clients and to see the effects of mountaintop removal mining first-hand. As he explains, his visit prompted questions about the relationship between this destructive practice and regional poverty.

Satellite imagery of the massive Hobet mine, taken in 2013.
Satellite imagery of the massive Hobet mine, taken in 2013. (NASA Earth Observatory)

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Last month, Earthjustice Associate Attorney Neil Gormley took a trip to West Virginia to visit partners and clients and to see the effects of mountaintop removal mining first-hand. As he explains in this unEarthed entry, his visit prompted questions about the relationship between this destructive practice and regional poverty.

The Hobet mining complex is one of the largest mountaintop removal surface mines in the country. It was my destination last month when I took off from Charleston’s Yeager Airport in a four-seater Cessna, courtesy of Earthjustice’s partners at SouthWings.

Hobet is huge. Between current and past mining, it spans more than 15 square miles. At the time of my visit, miners were operating a dragline, an earth-moving machine so enormous it dwarfed the 240-ton dump trucks. The destruction is impossible to miss from above. Yet the mine is barely visible from the state highway that runs along its eastern perimeter. It’s shielded from view by a tall ridgeline, sparing most passers-by the eyesore.

So what struck me most as I looked down at Hobet and the surrounding area, apart from the scale of the destruction, was how the mining company had taken no such precautions to shield the people living in the modest homes scattered around the mine site. Many of those residents live their everyday lives—complete with kids, vegetable gardens, swimming pools—near water turned strange colors by the industrial activity, or in the shadow of the massive, ugly, unnatural-looking “valley fills.” Nothing shields them or their kids from the realities of mountaintop removal mining.

I met a lot of local residents in Southern West Virginia during my trip, but I keep coming back to the vulnerable people who live in the shadow of the Hobet mine. I think their experience can tell us something important about the relationship between mountaintop removal mining and poverty at a broader, regional level.

Central and Southern Appalachia are poor. But the counties with the most mountaintop removal mining are among the very poorest. They experience high levels of unemployment, low incomes, and educational deficits that keep many of them among the poorest 10 percent of counties nationally. At 27.5 percent, the poverty rate in Kentucky’s coal-producing counties is nearly double the national rate. This map shows the startling correlation between poverty and mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

The federal government is supposed to take extra steps to keep from making low-income communities into victims of environmental degradation. Executive Order 12898, issued by President Clinton in 1994, directs each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations[.]” With legal help from Earthjustice, Appalachian community groups have petitioned the federal government to turn this purported commitment to environmental justice into action. But more than three years after the responsible federal agencies recognized that mountaintop removal mining “stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities” and “contaminate[s]” drinking water, the practice continues.

Which brings me back to the homes at the foot of Hobet. Economic disadvantage—whether a family’s or a region’s—helps explain why mountaintop removal persists. Many families near the mine lacked the economic and political power necessary to prevent the mining that destroyed their backyards and continues to put them and their families at risk. Likewise, the economic and political disadvantage of Central Appalachia helps explain why mountaintop removal continues over the opposition of strong local majorities. The corporations that profit from mountaintop removal often have more sway with local politicians than the local citizens that politicians are supposed to represent. In the words of West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley, the “expectation, or at least the hope, is that communities will suffer in silence the infringements of private property rights that would never be tolerated in the upscale suburbs where most politicians, regulators, and coal company managers live.”

Just as poverty in the area—and the lack of political power that goes hand in hand with it—made some very unlucky families vulnerable to the Hobet mine, poverty in Southern Appalachia has made the region as a whole vulnerable to mountaintop removal.

But coal mining and mountaintop removal have been a central part of these economies for long enough now that I can’t ignore the possibility that the line of causation also runs the other way. In other words, perhaps it isn’t just that poverty enables mountaintop removal mining. Perhaps coal is keeping these communities poor.

There are several good reasons to think so. For one thing, the coal industry as configured today is actually a net drain on state budgets. Even without considering the long-term environmental or health costs associated with coal extraction, studies on the West Virginia and Kentucky state budgets show that “the industry actually costs more than it brings to” these states. Another report for the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development explains why:

While coal generates significant revenues, its costs are considerable. Major public expenditures go into maintaining the coal haul road system; operating the health, safety and environmental protection systems necessary for coal; supporting training and research and development for the industry; and providing various tax breaks and subsidies. Without including harder-to-quantify costs of negative externalities from the industry, the net cost to [Kentucky] is over $100 million annually.

Every dollar these states spend supporting coal is one they can’t spend on other infrastructure, education, or economic diversification.

Apart from draining public funds, coal is contributing to educational deficits in Appalachia because, compared to other industries, it creates relatively little demand for educated workers. Unreliable as coal jobs have been in recent years, coal companies have historically held out the promise of a middle-class life for the relatively uneducated. Today, 27 percent of Central Appalachians do not have high school diplomas or equivalent degrees compared to 20 percent for the United States. Many parts of the region have high school drop-out rates that exceed 40 percent. These educational deficits hold back the regional economy.

The most important mechanism by which the coal industry prolongs poverty in Central Appalachia may be that it’s making people sick. A large and growing body of scientific evidence connects mountaintop removal mining with elevated rates of cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, and other health problems. Significant correlations persist even after statistical correction for age, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, poverty, education, availability of doctors, and other risk factors that are elevated in coal country. They hold not only for men, who experience most on-the-job exposures, but for women and children as well. It’s easy to see how the health problems tied to mountaintop removal mining would be a drag on economic productivity.

In all of these ways, mountaintop removal mining is trapping Central Appalachia in a cycle of poverty and standing in the way of economic diversification. It hurts not just individuals deprived of clean air, clean water, healthy forests, and healthy kids, but the entire region.

After serving in the Peace Corps in El Salvador and now working in the Washington, D.C. office, Neil Gormley is dedicated to representing vulnerable communities who can’t escape the horrors of dirty fossil fuels.

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Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.