"Clean" coal's dirtiest secret: Part II

Vivian Stockman, courtesy of SouthWings Air
Mountaintop removal coal mining at Kayford Mountain, Boone County,
W. Va. Photo: Vivian Stockman, courtesy of SouthWings Air

Part II: Almost Heaven Level: The Mechanics of Moving Mountains

In the heart of Appalachia, knobs, gaps and hollers define the undulating green landscape. Life is old, travel is slow, and it’s a daunting job to get a bus full of journalists up the steep, rutted dirt road through Cabin Creek Hollow to Larry Gibson’s cabin on Kayford Mountain. But no photos or descriptions of the devastation we are about to witness can do justice to a close-up look at a mountaintop removal mining operation. That is why we are here. That is what Larry wants to provide for reporters on this Society of Environmental Journalists field trip to the coalfields of southern West Virginia in October 2008, in hopes that we will be a conduit for the story he spends his life telling.

Larry's cabin on Kayford Mountain
Larry’s cabin on Kayford Mountain

Larry Gibson: standing against Big Coal

Larry has been facing down the coal industry for more than three decades, fighting for the survival of this mountain that has been his family’s home for 230 years. Much of the original homestead was seized by devious land companies in the early 20th century, but 50 acres remain. Back in 1993 a spokesman for the Sago Mine told Larry the property was worth $1million an acre to the coal industry, but he was offered $140,000 for all of it. He chose to put it in a land trust instead, and keep it as a base from which to fight against the destruction that now surrounds him and threatens many similar locations in the region.

“My mother gave me birth,” he said, “but these mountains give me life…There should be something in your life that money can’t buy. To me, it was my heritage, my culture, my way of life, of the Appalachian people.”

Larry Gibson
Larry Gibson

Larry is a lone hold-out on this mountain, which was once home to 60 families before the industry bought them out. He tells visitors, “I don’t need your help getting off this mountain; I need your help staying on it.”

He used to stand on this land and look up at green summits rising more than 3000 feet, surrounding the collection of cabins in the woods. Now, this lone forested flank at 2400 feet is the highest point around. The mountains encircling it have been blown up with millions of tons of dynamite in order to remove the shallow coal seams that lie buried within the layers of rock.

If I hadn’t heard the sounds of heavy equipment in the distance – the grinding engines of earthmovers and massive dump trucks beeping in reverse – I might never have realized what lay just a few hundred yards up a wooded rise from Larry’s cabin. We would discover it, he said, by walking through “Hell’s Gate,” the barrier marking the property line between his family’s land and the Samples Mine, where a subsidiary of Massey Coal has blown away 900 feet and 7500 acres of Kayford Mountain over the last four years. Another 6000 acres on adjacent Coal River Mountain are slated for the same fate. The first blast there went off the week before our arrival, Larry said, even though the permits are not yet final.

Appalachians near the Blue Ridge Parkway
Central Appalachian Range in its natural state

Ancient landscapes, lost forever

To understand the atrocity of mountaintop removal mining, you must first have a sense of what is being eradicated. In central Appalachia, lush hardwood forests cover the slopes in a mélange of green, beech, buckeye and maple, ash, shagbark, hickory and oak, tulip tree and flowering dogwood. Beneath their leafy canopy lies an understory of shrubs like mountain laurel and rhododendron, and hundreds of flowers and herbs, including medicinal plants such as ginseng and goldenseal. Moss and fungi thrive where water is plentiful, as do an amazing assortment of freshwater fish, salamanders and frogs. Deer and black bear drink from the clear streams that fill the narrow valleys, forming the headwaters for the rivers of the Eastern seaboard.

Fall foliage near Larry's cabin
Fall foliage near Larry’s cabin

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, this region and its ecosystems have been a long time in creation. Some of earth’s most ancient mountains comprise this range, birthed 300 million years ago when North America and Africa were still connected: the Appalachians were formed as part of the same mountain chain as the Anti-Atlas in Morocco.

Deep within their folded slopes lie some of the world’s richest carbon deposits, the product of millennia of compression, the anthracite and bituminous coalfields that hold much of the U.S.’s most plentiful fossil fuel stores.

Intensive efforts to retrieve that coal have been a defining part of the natural and cultural landscape in Appalachia since the Civil War. Where Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia & West Virginia share borders, beauty and pain have resided side by side for 150 years. Coal barons of the 1920s sought to smash miners’ unions in a push to increase production and profits from underground mines, but today’s captains of industry have managed to find a way around the cost and conflicts associated with labor while taking coal out of the earth via a faster mode. In so doing, they are undoing the earth’s geology and devastating whole ecosystems. They call it mountaintop mining. Opponents call it mountaintop removal.

We walk through a golden tracery of lacy maples and red sumac to Hell’s Gate, a low black bar, and approach the rim of a vast pit. As bleak and gray as the clouds overhead, it stretches 270 degrees around us to the horizon. It is as if we have come to an overlook of the surface of the moon. Few people are present except us. Most of the work is being done not by miners, Larry tells us, but by heavy-equipment operators.

But a fraction of the minescape panorama SEJ tour members viewed at Kayford Mountain
But a fraction of the minescape panorama SEJ tour members
viewed at Kayford Mountain

How to move a mountain

Destroying mountains to extract coal requires surprisingly little manpower. Just 19 men do what it used to take 650 to do in an underground mine, Larry says. “It is the most barbaric form of mining I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”

First, the trees are clear-cut and removed. The trees on Kayford Mountain were burned, Larry said, though occasionally they are sold for timber in some operations. Explosives are then buried in the ground and detonated. The mountaintop shudders and shakes apart into rubble. Ten to 12 blasts a day split the air at the Samples Mine, just a portion of the 3 million pounds of dynamite exploded every day in Appalachia, Larry said. He added that a single blast in 1999 costing $1 million was the largest non-nuclear blast to be detonated since World War II. Only on Sundays is the mine quiet, when Larry can hear the birds. There used to be 147 species native to Kayford Mountain, but just 39 remain, he said, according to a group of birders who monitor their numbers.

The blasting is hard on other animals, too, Larry says. He tells us that 14 bears were killed on the side of his land, tracked in to the mine zone via radio collars, but never out again.

Huge dump trucks haul away the rock, topsoil and waste that become valley fill.  I am standing next to the front tire.
Huge dump trucks haul away the rock, topsoil and waste that become
valley fill. I am standing next to the front tire.

After the blasting is finished the loose debris – or ‘overburden’ – is placed into enormous dump trucks that hold 240 tons and placed into adjacent valleys as “fill.” Once enough rock is removed to get at the coal seam, it is ripped out by gigantic drag lines and scooped into buckets big enough to hold 24 small cars. Then the process begins again. Each successive blasting round creates a deeper incursion into the mountain until ultimately it resembles a ravaged crater like the Samples Mine.

At the Four Mile Mountain Mine, our second stop, we learned that 25-30 feet of rock are blasted away to reach coal seams that are typically 10-18 inches deep and about 400 feet long. It seems like a lot of effort for a relatively little amount of coal versus rock. That tells you something about how lucrative coal is, and how cheaply it can be mined using these low-labor methods.

Andrew Jordon, CEO, Pritchard Mining
Andrew Jordon, CEO, Pritchard Mining

Andrew Jordon, CEO of Pritchard Mining and immediate past chair of the West Virginia Coal Association, told reporters at the site that much of the coal removed in mountaintop mining could not be accessed via traditional underground mining methods, and that which could would require a much greater expense and threat to human safety if surface mining methods were avoided.

Once the coal is removed, it is washed and loaded into trucks and eventually onto trains for transport across the country. Left behind are millions, even billions, of gallons of sludge. Black, stagnant and laden with toxic metals, the waste liquid is injected into old underground mines or impounded behind huge earthen dams that comprise “valley fills.” Hundreds of feet high, these piles of rock and dirt are often dumped into seasonal streambeds, wiping out the flow of water and affecting adjacent stream quality for more than 100 miles downstream.

Bill Raney, president of the WVCA, takes issue with this notion of “dumping.” “A valley fill is one of the most sophisticated structures in earthmoving engineering,” he said. And as for streams obliterated when such fills are placed in hollows?

Brushy Fork impoundment on the the west side of Coal River Mountain, WV; built to hold 8 billion tons of coal sludgel
Brushy Fork impoundment on the the west side of Coal River Mountain,
WV; built to hold 8 billion tons of coal sludge. Photo: Vivan Stockman,
courtesy of SouthWings Air

“Those aren’t streams,” said Rocky Hackforth, Pritchard’s vice president of operations and general manager at Four Mile. Because they only run when it rains, for instance, they are “ephemeral streams,” a term Raney offered, and thus do not meet the definition of a “navigable” waterway off limits to dumping under the Clean Water Act. Currently, law exists to prohibit mining activity within 100 feet of a stream. But the law is blatantly flouted on a regular basis by mountaintop removal operations that skirt the Act through claims that such ephemeral run-offs are exempt from the legal provision.

Reclaimed Kayford Mountain MTR site
“Reclaimed” Kayford Mountain MTR site

The semantics of reclamation

Reclamation standards require that mining companies restore the land to a close approximation of its “original contours,” including reinstating streams, but in most cases what results is merely a layer of grass seed tossed over the topsoil-barren moonscape. And even industry leaders admit that attempts to recreate vital streams that offer a natural habitat for fish and other aquatic life have been less than successful.

Jordon’s operation has received recognition for industry best practices in reclamation, however, and a survey of the no-longer-active sections of the Four Mile Mountain mine show 10- to15-foot tall native trees that appear to be coming back nicely. “Our success rate with reforestation has been very, very good,” Jordon said.

Of 6000 acres under lease to Pritchard, 2200 have been mined and reclaimed so far. “We’re here to recover the resources that we’ve been blessed with in West Virginia and then to put it back,” Jordon said.

But to suggest that such replanting will do anything more than provide a veneer of green for decades to come defies reason. It has taken a thousand years to generate the layer of topsoil on the Appalachians, and thousands more to evolve the multitude of species of flora and fauna that reside in the undisturbed forest. Just because wild turkeys and deer “immediately” return to the reclaimed site, according to Hackworth, it’s hard to imagine convincing anyone that the scale and scope of damage inflicted has been mitigated.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Twisted Gun golf course, Mingo County, W. Va. Recreation in one of the
poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation.
Photo: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In other cases, there is no mandate to restore the land to any semblance of its original character under the Interior Department’s 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act if a “higher and better use” can be demonstrated. This includes economic uses of flat property deemed to benefit the public with the construction of airstrips, schools, prisons, shopping centers and golf courses. The previous, largely vertical landscape was only useful for hunting or timber, while flattened mountaintops expand the range of uses and thus the value of the land, say proponents.

Larry Gibson, and many residents of coal country whose mountain roots and cultural heritage go back centuries, disagree.

At any rate, less than 5 percent of mountaintop removal sites have undergone any sort of economic development, despite the former coal mines being touted by industry and government as ‘gold mines’ for commercial growth.

The National Mining Association now estimates that 14 to 15 percent of the nation’s coal production comes from mountaintop removal mining.  In Appalachia, the number of surface mines now exceeds underground operations. The effects of such extreme methods on the face of the land in Appalachia are profound.   But the effects on Appalachia’s people are also deeply disturbing, as Part III of this series will examine.

Coming up:

Part III: The poor are always downstream
Part IV: The tenacity of hope

7 replies »

  1. Oddly enough, Larry was the feature on the back page of People not too long ago. (please, don’t ask…it’s only that if words are within my vision i read them, it may be a terrible disease that makes me compulsively read publications like People)

    So let’s see, mountaintop removal does not really add very many jobs to the local economy, and it burdens the local economy with a ruined environment. Yes, indeed, i see now why it makes so much sense.

    In the best case scenario, topsoil is replaced at the rate of about 1/2 inch per year; moreover, soil ecology is something hardly understood…even by the people who who try. It is an amazingly complex web of microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi. All of these are essential to plant growth, because roots can’t actually take nutrients from the soil directly (they can absorb chemical fertilizers somewhat directly because those enter the soil as salts that readily dissolve in water). They need the soil system to digest the elemental nutrients and present them in ionic form. What i’m getting at is that throwing down a layer of topsoil and putting plants in doesn’t really “replace” what is the essential link in the system.

    *Wendy, thank you for the compliment, and as i left Dr. Slammy hanging on the bio side when i submitted the one post i’ve had here i will…as soon as time and access permit…introduce myself via the “contact” link.

  2. And in most cases, they don’t even put anything resembling topsoil back on the site. It’ usually just sprayed on agricultural grass seed. By the way, I unapologetically read People in line at the grocery store. I think it’s smart, actually, to keep a finger on the pulse of pop culture, if only to critique it! And I just saw that you sent some bio info! Look forward to reading it next. Thanks.

  3. One possible solution to the reclamation issue could be this:

    Terra petra is a wonder substance for growing plants (at least it worked real well for the pre-contact Amazonians). It is one step removed from charcoal. Rather than slash and burn, the creation of it can be called slash and char. Several companies are looking into it as a method of carbon sequestering. The clear cut growth could be turned into terra petra and mixed with the topsoil used for reclamation.

    It would not solve soil depth issues for trees and shrubs, nor would it negate all the negative effects of mountaintop removal. But i doubt very much that the mining companies will cease the practice so perhaps the best course over the short term is to find an environmentally positive way to alleviate some of the negative impact.

  4. I think that mining is fine because my dad is a heavy equipment operator at Rocklick and if yall knock him out of a job that means we loose everything and i also think if yall end mining there is goin to be another war with the coalfieds

  5. I seriously hope that coal companies will find other ways to mine coal from the Appalachian Mountains. I also hope that they will implement those methods. I’m sure other methods of mining can be found. Any pictures I’ve seen of the Appalachians are beautiful. This makes a once awesomely beautiful and diverse ecosystem into utter crap.

    Adam, of course mining is okay. Only, certain methods of mining are not okay. Mountain top removal must be stopped. This method of mining hurts another industry which is the logging industry. Not only this, it also hurts the environment and pollutes water sources which I am betting people get drinking water from.

  6. The argument that you are trying to take claim to in this article seems to not have substantial evidence or even be presented clearly. It seems to me that what this company has done is the right thing and been very successful doing things the right way. If you would like to buy foreign coal and let people in other countries mine it with little set regulations be my guest rather than have it done the right way in the United States, this also provides a good living for a lot of people and it is a shame to see ignorance fall in the way of that. And your understanding of the biological recovery process is obviously poorly understood, after seeing your explanation. I also do not happen to see a hint of factual evidence to any of arguments.
    Jesse please inform of the methods mining that are okay with you, a lot of mines are logged, and whose drinking water is this mine polluting?
    Lex “So let’s see, mountaintop removal does not really add very many jobs to the local economy, and it burdens the local economy with a ruined environment. Yes, indeed, i see now why it makes so much sense.”
    Lex take coal mining away from West Virginia. 60,000 jobs would be lost, 26 billion dollars would be lost from our economy, 3.2 billion of which are wages for West Virginians. And the worst of all the author of this blog would not have anything to complain about.
    My father is employed by coal and I am living life through it, when he shuts it down would the author like to pay for my college education and could I come live with him? Oh yeah I hope he has a few rooms for my fellow West Virginians employed by coal to stay in, he also doesn’t know how many industries are situated around the coal industry, and how many people they employ Don’t worry they can come to his house too.
    I like facts not a bunch of ridiculous statements. I hope the authors house has power.