Strip Mines


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


Strip mining is one of several methods of mining that may also be classified as surface mining. Strip or surface mines are classified as above ground mining techniques. The term “strip mine” refers directly to the practice of stripping off layers of earth to access mineral, coal or other embedded deposits (e.g., metals, diamonds). Currently, some of the most significant surface mines are tar sand mines, such as those found in Canada (known as the Athabasca tar sands or the Alberta tar sands).

Strip mining is a controversial practice due to the extent of ecological harm it produces. Depending on where it is practiced, strip mining may cause deforestation, promote habitat destruction and species loss, degrade ecosystem stability and quality, disrupt waterways, lead to acidic runoff from mining waste, and lead to creation of large piles of strip mine waste and extensive land damage that cannot be easily remediated (e.g., Stertesky and Lynch, 2011; Holl and Cairns, 1994; Mummey, Stahl and Buyers, 2002; Townsend et al., 2009). The way in which the strip mine overburden, that is the layers of earth removed to reach the mined materials, is stored or disposed can lead to extensive loss of ground nutrient and cause extensive (ecological disorganization). The negative ecological and health effects of strip are largely felt by the rural poor (Casta’n Broto et al., 2007), and present issues of environmental justice for those communities (e.g., Davis, 2009; see environmental justice entry).

While ecological harmful, strip mining techniques tend to be preferred by industry because they are more efficient, requiring less capital investment to produce the same quantity of product as underground mining. For example, in the coal industry, strip mining is about 2.7 times more efficient than underground coal mining (Stretesky and Lynch, 2011). In the US, for example, increased use of strip mining, including mountaintop removal mining ( see this entry) from the late 1970s through 2005 produced an 84% increase in coal production, but at the same time lead to a 45% decrease in mining employment (US Energy Information Administration, 2006).

The US government keeps track of abandoned mines, including strip mines (Abandoned mines).

In the US, surface mining is primarily 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; see also the dictionary entry on SMCRA).

Further Reading


Casta´n Broto, V., Tabbush, P., Burningham, K., Elghali, L. & Edwards, D. (2007) Coal ash and risk: four social interpretations of a pollution landscape, Landscape Research, 32(4), pp. 481–497.

Davis, G. (2009) Where once there were mountains: The grassroots struggle against mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia, Environmental Politics, 18(1), pp. 135–140.

Holl, K. & Cairns, J. Jr (1994) Vegetational community development on reclaimed coal surface mines in Virginia, Torrey Botanical Society Journal, 121(4), pp. 327–337.

Mummey, D., Stahl, P. & Buyer, J. (2002) Soil microbiological properties 20 years after surface mine reclamation: spatial analysis of reclaimed and undisturbed sites, Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 34(11): 1717–1725.

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.

Townsend, P., Helmers, D., Kingdon, C., McNeil, B., Beurs, K. & Eshleman, K. (2009) Changes in the extent of surface mining and reclamation in the central Appalachians detected using a 1976–2006 Landsat time series, Remote Sensing of Environment, 113(1): 62–72.

U.S. Energy Information Administration (2006) Coal production in the United States. Available at:

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