Instead of tunneling into the mountain and sending miners underground to locate, dig and extract the coal, mountaintop mining removes the tops of mountains to expose the coal underneath and to make it easier and less expensive to mine.
What Happens During Mountaintop Removal Mining?
At a typical mountaintop removal mining site, a mining company starts by clear-cutting miles of hardwood forest and understory growth from the top of a mountain, destroying wildlife habitat and nesting sites for native and migratory birds. Next, the company drills hundreds of holes and packs them with powerful explosives to blast through rock and reduce the elevation of the mountain by as much as 800 feet, creating perfect conditions for flooding and erosion.
Huge shovels clear the rubble, often dumping it into adjacent valleys where it buries streams, destroys more habitat, and sometimes contaminates community drinking water with heavy metals and toxic chemicals. Giant machines called draglines—some 20 stories high and weighing 8 million pounds—dig into the rock to expose the coal. Other machines scoop out the coal and dump millions of additional tons of rock and soil called "overburden" into the surrounding valleys.
Does the Land Ever Recover After Mountaintop Removal Mining?
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 requires mining companies to reclaim all areas disturbed by mountaintop removal mining operations in one of several post-mining land-use options. The core requirement is for mining companies to return the land to its "approximate original contour."
The law allows variances for development projects that would benefit the local community, such as housing, schools or shopping centers. In most cases, however, the proposed projects never materialize, and paving mountaintops after the mining is over does nothing to help the environment or to restore what is lost.