Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR)


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a highly controversial form of surface mining for coal that involves the use of explosives to remove mountaintops to expose coal seams for mining. MTR is widely used in the Appalachian Mountain range in the eastern United States, and has caused significant ecological destruction.

Mountaintop mining is regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA; see, SMCRA Act Link) and Clean Water Act (CWA; see in this dictionary, C W A). SMCRA rules relate to two primary issues in MTR processes: obtaining a permit to conduct MTR, and the reclamation of MTR sites following closure of a site.

MTR permits must be acquired when a proposed MTR site poses the possibility of impeding a waterway in the construction or disposal of MTR waste. MTR sites usually created as is called a “valley fill,” that is the disposal of MTR waste in the valley between mountaintops. In these situations, the valley fill (see this link for a photo of a valley fill) is likely to disrupt the flow of streams and creeks, and may involve a violation of the Clean Water Act. In such cases, mining operators may obtain a permit allowing for an exemption from Clean Water Act regulations from the US Army Corps of Engineers (under the Clean Water Act, section 404).

Significant controversy emerged around valley fill exemptions during 2001 during an appeal of valley fill rules promoted by the G. W. Bush Administration. Under the Clean Water Act it is illegal to discharge any pollutants or waste into US waterways without a permit. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act specifically draws attention to the discharge of dredged and fill materials into waterways. The Bush Administration argued that the Clean Water Act did not provide adequate definitions of either “fill materials” or “discharge of fill materials that could be placed in a valley fill. The proposed rules changed the definition of waste that could be discharged into a valley fill. The rule specifically addressed the discharge of mining overburden, or the material removed from an MTR operation, and its disposal in a valley fill. The new definition reclassified MTR overburden, as removed it from being designated as waste.

Several legal challenges to the new rules occurred. In a case filed by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the US District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning e new valley fill rules. That case was later vacated by the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court refused to take the case on appeal. In a later case in 2007, a federal district court determined that plaintiffs argument that valley fill specific permits violated the intent of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and rescinded the permits under review and returned them to the Army Corps of Engineers for further review. In 2009, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. The decision reverted to the 2002 Bush rule change.

The effects of MTR on the US landscape are widespread. In 2012, it was estimated that in the Appalachian Mountain region, 2,200 square miles had been cleared in MTR projects. The long term environmental consequences of this process is illustrated in time-series photos taken by satellite and maintained by NASA. The phots span the years 1984-2013 and show what has happened at one mining site over time (see, NASA photo series).

An MTR project begins with the clearing of the mountaintop through several mechanisms. In some, but not all cases, the mountaintop’s forest is first harvested, but in many cases it may be burned or plowed down. Following clear of trees and brush, the top of the mountain is removed with explosives to expose the coal seam for removal. The overburden – the rock, earth, tree and brush waste – is then bulldozed into the adjacent valley, creating a valley fill.

The coal extracted from this process is generally cleaned on site, using large quantities of water and creating a need to store that water which is now polluted with heavy metals and coal waste and is highly toxic. Typically, that waste is stored on site in waste lagoon creating coal slurry impoundments with a highly concentration of chemical from the coal and chemicals used to process the coal for market. These slurry pits are often located near the edge of the former mountaintop, and present the possibility of slurry spills from rain (in this dictionary see examples for The Buffalo Creek Disaster, the example for the Kingston Fossil Fuel Coal Slurry Spill and for more general information, the entry on Coal Combustion Waste).

Numerous studies have examined the detrimental ecological and public health consequences associated with MTR (e.g., see, Ahern et al., 2011; Hendryx, 2012; Palmer et al., 2010; Ponds et al, 2008). These studies show that MTR has serious public health and ecological consequences. Green criminologists have also addressed these issues (Stretesky and Lynch, 2011).

Populations affected by MTR have engaged in public protests and formed a number of social movement organizations and environmental justice organizations that address the adverse consequences of MTR. Relevant links to some of these groups and actions against MTR follow.

Appalachian Voices Voices Ilovemountains
Keeper of the Mountains Mountain Keeper
Mountain Justice Mountain Justice
National Resource Defense Council Mountaintop Removal Mining Initiative NRDC
Plundering Appalachia Plunder
Quit Coal Quit
West Virginia Highlands Conservancy WV Highlands

For a small photo gallery of MTR, see: MTR GALLERY

Further Reading


Ahern, Melissa M., Michael Hendryx, Jamison Conley, Evan Fedorko, Alan Ducatman, and Keith J. Zullig. (2011). “The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003.” Environmental Research 111, 6 : 838-846.

Hendryx, Michael. (2012). “Poverty and mortality disparities in central Appalachia: mountaintop mining and environmental justice.” Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice 4, 3: 44-53.

Palmer, Margaret A., E. S. Bernhardt, W. H. Schlesinger, K. N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M. S. Hendryx, A. D. Lemly et al. (2010). “Mountaintop mining consequences.” Science 327, 5962: 148-149.

Pond, Gregory J., Margaret E. Passmore, Frank A. Borsuk, Lou Reynolds, and Carole J. Rose. (2008). “Downstream effects of mountaintop coal mining: comparing biological conditions using family-and genus-level macroinvertebrate bioassessment tools.” Journal of the North American Benthological Society 27, 3: 717-737.

Stretesky, Paul B., and Michael J. Lynch. 2011. “Coal Strip Mining, Mountain Top Removal and the Distribution of Environmental Violations Across the United States, 2002-2008.” Landscape Research 36,2: 209-230.

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