by Jim Ridley
From City Paper editor Stephen George, who has been tracking the issue of mountaintop removal:
King Coal has long pulled a two-fisted argument on detractors of mountaintop removal mining, a form of surface mining that has partially or completely leveled at least 500 mountains in the Appalachian region since the 1970s.
The argument: Mining itself brings jobs to impoverished regions, and the post-boom reclaimed mine sites — when put to “equal or better economic use,” as the federal regulatory legalese goes — bring a second storm of money, jobs, investment, and so forth. A Walmart store in Hazard, Ky., for example, is built on a reclaimed mine site. So is that city’s modest airport.
First there was the dramatic drop in employment by the coal industry, mostly due to the prevalence of highly mechanized MTR.
The report's title says it all: "Reclamation FAIL."
Appalachian Voices used recent aerial images of sites where at least 50 feet of bedrock had been removed by surface mining. Of 410 sites (the other 90 are still active mining operations), 366 had no post-mining economic activity. That’s 89.3 percent of the total.
The study identifies six former mountaintop removal sites in Tennessee, which sees significantly less MTR than its Appalachian sisters. Exactly none can boast economic value or purpose.
Most of the sites feature some form of vegetation, reforestation or pasture. In Kentucky, a mere 4 percent of the sites had some economic activity, while in West Virginia, 4.2 percent did. The most economic activity, at 20 percent of flattened summits, is in Virginia.
“The fact that coal companies can blast away the tops of 500 of the oldest and most biodiverse mountains on the continent shows an utter disrespect for the communities that have to live with the destruction of their land, air and water,” says Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices.
Coal companies are required to return land in mountaintop removal mining operations to its “approximate original contour,” according to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. That’s typically done on operations that use valley fills, or areas where coal companies dump “overburden” — the term for all that is blown up and off the top of the mountain — until the end of the operation, then use it to reshape the mountain (also a dramatically unsuccessful enterprise).
But there is an exemption for those companies who put the sites to “equal or better use” for the good of the economy, the public, or developers wanting to build houses there.
And guess what? Everybody wants to do some good! In the four states surveyed, operators invoked this clause in more than 80 percent of cases.
“Mining companies … love bragging about how they restore mine sites for the benefit of local communities,” says Rob Perks of the NRDC. “Our study exposes Big Coal’s broken promises by proving that post-mining economic prosperity is a big, flat lie.”