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Debate: Ban on mountaintop removal coal mining

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Background and context

Mountain top removal mining (MTR), also known as mountaintop mining (MTM), is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. Entire coal seams are removed from the top of a mountain, hill or ridge by removing the so-called overburden (soil lying above the economically desired resource).
After the coal is extracted, the removed material is put back onto the ridge to approximate the mountain's original contours. Any overburden the mining company considers excess (that which it's not able to place back onto the ridge top) is moved into neighboring valleys. Mountaintop removal is most closely associated with coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. Peer-reviewed studies show that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts, including loss of biodiversity. But, the industry claims that it can "reclaim" and reforest areas subject to MTR. Even if this is not widely done now, could it be done more in the future? Another point of debate is whether MTR creates substantial jobs, or whether it displaces jobs by replacing traditional mining with the use of dynamite and huge machines. The impact on local communities in terms of air quality, drinking water, and natural beauty is also a point of debate. The coal industry tends to claim that mountaintop removal creates flat lands that are more suitable to economic development and recreational uses of different kinds. These arguments and more are discussed below.
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Environment: Is mountaintop removal coal mining environmentally damaging?

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Pro

  • Trees have difficulty gaining root in compacted backfill. Mountaintop removal takes off the ordinary topsoil upon which trees can gain root. What remains is a compacted rocky surface that is not usually suitable for reforestation within any reasonable period of time.
  • Trees cut for mountaintop mining are often not used. I love mountains.org: "CLEARING - Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not even used comercially in the rush to get the coal, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills."
  • Mountaintop removal threatens many endangered species. Extensive tracts of deciduous forests destroyed by mountaintop mining support several endangered species and some of the highest biodiversity in North America.
  • Transport trucks in mountaintop removal damage environment. The huge trucks being driven in and out of coal mine sites are loud, disruptive, and polluting of the environment.
  • Burning coal emits carbon dioxide and harms climate. Burning CO2 emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source. It is, therefore, a major contributor to climate change.
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Con

  • Mountaintop removal more accurately called mountaintop development. Taylor Kuykendall. "What's In a name? 'Mountaintop Removal' vs. 'Mountaintop Development'" Friends of Coal. December 27th, 2010: "coal industry executives say the term 'mountaintop development' would paint a more accurate picture of the practice. 'In my mind, mountaintop ‘removal’ implies the site is mined and then left barren, lifeless and flattened. This couldn’t be further from the truth,' said Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association. [...] [Hamilton says] Restoring the land occurs in about 90 percent to 95 percent of former surface mines [...] 'We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original premining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees,' Hamilton said. 'We also rebuild the drainage channels, putting in sediment and erosion-control structures to prevent potential downstream impacts.'"
  • Mountaintop coal companies restore developed area. Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said in 2010: "Restoring the land occurs in about 90 percent to 95 percent of former surface mines. We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original premining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees. We also rebuild the drainage channels, putting in sediment and erosion-control structures to prevent potential downstream impacts.”[1]
  • Permits require miners to restore or adapt mines. Mining permits require companies to restore the mines to their approximate original contour or to configure the land for an 'alternate use.' They have to get an exemption of some kind in order to get around this. And while exemptions are offered, at the least the default requirement is restoration.
  • Small percentage of coal mines are open ones. Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said iu 2010: “I love mountains as well. And I would point out that only 1 percent of the surface area of our state has been touched by surface mining. Some opponents of coal are prone to exaggeration..."[2]
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Valley fills: Are valley fills a major risk?

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Pro

  • Coal slurry left over from mountaintop removal is toxic I love mountains.org: "PROCESSING — The coal is washed and treated before it is loaded on trains. The excess water left over from this process is called coal slurry or sludge and is stored in open coal impoundments. Coal sludge is a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. Impoundments are held in place by mining debris, making them very unstable."
  • Valley fills often cause the flooding of communities. As valley fills obstruct the natural flow of water, redirect water in new directions, or create dams that can suddenly burst, they often result in the flooding of local communities as is often experienced in places like West Virginia.


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Con

  • Mountaintop removal does not inherently involve valley filling. "Mongiardo leads defense of mountaintop removal." Kentukians for the Commonwealth. March 26th, 2009 "A distinction we try to make clear: a valley fill permit is not the same as a permit allowing the company to mine using mountaintop removal or any other mining method. Those permits are usually issued by the state. Valley fill, or "404" permits (referring to the section in the Clean Water Act), are issued by the Corps of Engineers. The EPA has overall responsibility for enforcement of the CWA, including some oversight authority over the Corps' actions." In other words, mountaintop removal does not inherently involve valley fills. Valley fills can be banned or avoided by coal companies without abandoning the practice of mountain top removal.


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Economics: Is mountaintop mining economical?

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Pro

  • Mountaintop mines are almost never developed afterwords. Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that a flyover of the southern West Virginia coalfields suggests little development on former surface mine sites. 'If they’re hoping to, you know, create shopping malls on some of these, I don’t know where they’re going to get all the shoppers. All the communities around these areas have been driven away.”[3] :[4]: "Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that about 1.2 million acres and about 500 mountains were flattened by surface mining in central Appalachia. An aerial imagery analysis by NRDC found that about 90 percent of mountaintop removal sites were not converted to economic uses. Only about 4 percent of West Virginia and Kentucky mountaintops had been redeveloped, NRDC found. 'We watch our Appalachian communities being destroyed every day with the false promise of reclamation,' Lorelei Scarbro, with Coal River Mountain Watch, told NRDC. 'We, the citizens living at ground zero, are losing our way of life and our history with every mountain they take. I am heartbroken to think what my grandchildren will have left when they grow up if we don’t stop this rogue mining.'"
  • Myth that West Virginia doesn't have enough flat land. Vivian Stockman, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said that the notion that West Virginia needs more flat land is a myth. "Back in 2002 we had some volunteers create some maps for us. There were just massive amounts of land that are not, in any way, shape or form, developed."[5]
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Con

  • Mountain mining creates economic opportunities on flattened land "Few sites redeveloped after mining." The Mercury. January 3th, 2011: "HINDMAN, Ky. — A short drive up a side road through dense Appalachian forest ends at a vast, flat clearing where a mountaintop used to be. The peak that stood for an eon is gone, replaced by a giant recreation area that was built after a coal company scraped away thousands of tons of earth, lowering the mountain by 200 feet. Coal industry supporters say the Knott County Sportsplex in eastern Kentucky is one of many examples of economic opportunity created by strip mining techniques that include the often-vilified method known as mountaintop removal."
  • Mountaintop removal often only way to develop land West Virginia’s natural contours, as an example, are not necessarily the best for land development. The cost of reshaping that land for development makes many potential sites cost-prohibitive. Mountaintop removal is often the only economical way of doing this.
  • Mountaintop mining can access narrow seems of coal. Proponents argue that in certain geologic areas, MTR and similar forms of surface mining allow the only access to thin seams of coal that traditional underground mining would not be able to mine.
  • MTR often most cost-effective means of coal extraction. Depending on how deep or shallow and how narrowly coal is buried in a mountain, mountaintop removal is often the most economical means of extraction. Enabling such efficient extraction is important to keeping coal and electricity prices low, enabling the modern way of life.


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Jobs: Does mountaintop removal cost/create jobs?

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Pro

  • Explosives/machines in mountaintop removal replace jobs Ashley Judd. "Stop mountain top removal coal mining." The Hill. July 14th, 2010: "Coal companies say Appalachia needs mining for jobs. Again, false. Coal mining jobs in Appalachia have decreased by 60 percent as MTR is highly mechanized. Explosives, machines such as 20 story draglines and bulldozers have replaced more than 100,000 jobs. Those working MTR jobs have little to no social protections and often work in a climate of bullying and fear. Many sites lack regulation, oversight and enforcement, as recent tragedies make sadly clear. The specious argument that Appalachia must choose between jobs and people, jobs and ancient mountains, honoring our coal mining past and having a strong future, must be retired."
  • Mountaintop mining is generally not a big job-creator. Mountain Justice: "Traditional mining communities disappear as jobs diminish and residents are driven away by dust, blasting and increased flooding and dangers from overloaded coal trucks careening down small, windy mountain roads. Mining companies buy many of the homes and tear them down. Dynamite is cheaper than people, so mountaintop removal mining does not create many new jobs."


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Con

  • Holding up mountaintop removal mining costs jobs. National Mining Association stated in 2009 in response to the Obama administration's EPA action holding up permits for mountaintop removal and valley fills: "This action, which applies to all mining-related 404 permits in the region, puts thousands of mining jobs and coal production in Appalachia at risk. While on the one hand the administration is spending billions in stimulus jobs, it is taking away the highest paying jobs in the region by delaying needed permit approvals. This is not good for jobs or for energy security."[6]
Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association: "let’s go to the math — the coal industry provides 60,000 jobs today at an average salary of $68,500 per year. The industry pays more than $3.4 billion each year in payroll and pumps some $26 billion into the state’s economy. That is no small contribution. It is the very bedrock of our state’s economy. 'About 45 percent of that impact comes from surface mining, and it is important to note that often the existence of a surface mine provides the economic support that allows affiliated underground mines to exist in an area. If you remove the surface mine component, you will likely make some underground mining facilities un-economic to operate.'"
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Communities: Does mountaintop removal harm communities?

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Pro

  • Mountaintop removal destroys recreational mountains. Anita Miller, a resident of Laurel Branch Valley in West Virginia where Mountain Top removal has taken place, said in July of 2009: "There used to be pine trees, and it was a very pretty shaded area. There was a nice trail that went up the hollow and I used to take my granddaughter up there and we’d go ginsenging [harvesting ginseng roots, an Appalachian custom] on up the hill.[...] Can’t we go someplace else? There’s no hills to climb there."[7]
  • MTR violates principle that mountains should have tops. Mountains naturally have tops. There is a reason for this. Removing them dramatically violates and damages nature's beauty.
  • Mountaintop removal blasts dust into air, harming local communities. Blasting mountaintops, driving trucks on dusty roads, and scraping coal out of open mines all releases dust into the air that negatively impacts local communities in terms of their air quality and health.
  • Explosives used in mountaintop removal are dangerous/loud/etc. I love mountains.org: "BLASTING — Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 500-800 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives." This is dangerous to workers, annoying to locals, and potentially harmful or disruptive to local wildlife.


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Con

  • Mountaintop mining helps communities hampered by lack of flat space. Joe Lucas, vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), told the Guardian that dynamiting the tops off of mountains helped communities that were "hampered because of a lack of flat space."[8]: "I can take you to places in eastern Kentucky where community services were hampered because of a lack of flat space — to build factories, to build hospitals, even to build schools. In many places, mountain-top mining, if done responsibly, allows for land to be developed for community space."
  • MTR land better supports game animals. The new growth on reclaimed mountaintop mined areas is better suited to support populations of game animals.
  • Mountaintop coal mining is critical to some regions. Mountaintop removal provided 30% of the coal mined in West Virginia in 2006. For this reason, it has become an important part of West Virginia's economy and the vibrancy of its communities.


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Health: Is mountaintop removal unhealthy?

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Pro

  • Mountaintop removal harms local drinking water. Toxins, coal slurry, and chemicals used in the cleaning of coal often find their way downstream from MTR sites and into well water consumed by a large percentage of rural families.
  • MTR has general health consequences. Published studies also show a high potential for human health impacts. These may result from contact with streams or exposure to airborne toxins and dust. Adult hospitalization for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a result of county-level coal production. Rates of mortality, lung cancer, as well as chronic heart, lung and kidney disease are also increased.
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