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OWOE - Coal Power - Why is mountain top removal harmful to the environment?
  Figure 1 - Spruce No. 1 Mine in W. Virginia (Vivian Stockman / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)
Figure 1 - Spruce No. 1 Mine in W. Virginia (Vivian Stockman / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)
Figure 2 - Coal Mining Techniques (Kentucky Geological Survey)
Why is mountain top removal harmful to the environment?
Topic updated: 2015-09-01

Mountain top removal is a relatively new form of surface mining in which the entire top of a mountain is removed to expose the coal seam. (Figure 2) This form of mining is cost effective in the some mining locations and, theoretically, provides new habitat for animals and community expansion opportunities to the surrounding people.This technique is primarily used in the Appalachian Mountains. Federal law requires the land to be reclaimed to match the original contour. However, critics claim that mountains are flattened and valleys and streams filled in, destroying the environment and the aesthetics of the countryside. According to an aerial inspection of West Virginia, about fifteen percent of its mountaintops in the south-central area and about twenty-five percent of other areas have been leveled. By one estimate more than 470 miles of streams were buried by overburden between 1986 and 1998.

In October 1999, the Spruce No. 1 Mine (see Figure 1) became the subject of the first significant federal court decision on mountaintop removal mining. It was ultimately ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers' permit for the mine was unlawful. The permit would have allowed the coal company to bury over six miles of streams under mining waste dumps (called "valley fills") created from the destruction of over 2,000 acres of mountain top land. This ruling iitiated years of controversy and litigation. In January 2011, the EPA vetoed the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit based in part on scientific studies and data sources released after the permit was initially issued, that showing irreversible harm to waters and revealing that industry-designed mitigation measures had repeatedly failed to protect waters.

In 2012, the Washington, DC district court ruled that EPA lacked authority to veto the permit after the Corps had issued it. Then in 2013, the DC circuit court reversed the district court's ruling and upheld EPA's authority to veto whenever there is unacceptable harm, including after a permit has been issued. The case went back to the District Court for review, and in September 2014 upheld the EPA's veto, ruling that it was reasonable, supported by evidence, and well within EPA's scope of responsibility to protect waters.

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