With a rebounding industry now seeking permits for more and larger mines, the environmental impact is likely to grow, the reports show. One federal study projects that if current trends hold, over the next decade affected land will encompass 2,200 square miles, an area larger than Rhode Island.
"A huge percentage of the watershed is being filled in and mined out, and we have no idea what the downstream impacts will be," said one senior government scientist who has studied mountaintop mining extensively but insisted on anonymity for fear of repercussions at work. "All we know is that nothing on this scale has ever happened before."
"Mountaintop removal" mining has flattened many peaks, such as these near Kayford, W.Va.
(Bob Bird -- AP)
Flattening the Mountains: How mining companies tear down mountains and fill adjacent streams and hollows. Also, how the "fill rule" became law.
Map: W.Va. Mining Areas
_____About this Series_____About this Series
An Agency Takes a Turn
Under President Bush, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made sometimes subtle changes in regulations that carry large consequences for workers and employers. Across the government, the Bush administration has started fewer regulations and killed more inherited proposals than did either of the two previous administrations.
A Policy Puts Science on Trial
A last-minute addition to an unrelated piece of legislation has created a tool for attacking the science used by federal agencies as a basis for new regulations. Industry has embraced the Data Quality Act to challenge 32 major proposals, including a successful assault on efforts to restrict the use of the herbicide atrazine.
A Word Accelerates
By changing the word "waste" to "fill" in a regulation covering coal mining, Bush appointees have allowed an increase in the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia.
Big Costs -- and Big Payoff
Dismantling something as large as a mountain requires advanced technology, big machines and massive amounts of explosives. Opponents in West Virginia describe the result as "strip mines on steroids."
Rather than tunneling into a mountain's face to reach the coal, mountaintop miners remove as much as 600 vertical feet of summit to get at the coal seams inside. Many of the mines encompass multiple peaks and thousands of acres in between, including large swaths of temperate hardwoods and myriad streams.
After the trees are cleared away, miners detonate scores of explosive charges to shear slabs of rock from the underlying coal. Gargantuan machines called draglines clear away the rock with bucket scoops that can hold 100,000 pounds, or as much weight as 40 Toyota Corollas.
While the capital costs are enormous, so is the payoff to the industry. Traditional mines extract about 70 percent of the coal from an underground seam; the recovery rate for mountaintop mines approaches 100 percent. The new mines also require far fewer workers -- sometimes only a few dozen per mine. Still, those jobs are high-paying and highly coveted, and the mines themselves continue to generate billions of dollars for local economies. For those reasons, many state politicians and even labor unions embrace the technique.
A growing number in central Appalachia despise it. A poll commissioned by a West Virginia environmental group this year found that opponents of the practice outnumber supporters by 2 to 1. "Opposition is broad and deep, traversing all demographic groups and every region of the state," said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a Democratic polling firm based in the District.
As more mountaintops disappear and sometimes entire villages along with them, resistance has spread. Coal companies have offered to buy and demolish houses near the mines, effectively depopulating settlements. Residents who remain recite a familiar litany of complaints: dust, truck traffic, constant blasting that rattles nerves and sometimes damages houses. Even more jarring for many is the sight of the destruction of the ancient hills, familiar landmarks and touchstones for generations of families.
"I've been coming up through these mountains since I was 5 years old. Now the place looks like an asteroid hit," Bo Webb, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran, said of the 1,800-acre mountaintop mine above his house in central West Virginia's Raleigh County. "A lot of us up here have fought for our country. To see what is happening now to our homes makes me so mad."
The state's top elected officials, including Democratic Gov. Robert E. Wise Jr. and his Republican predecessor Cecil H. Underwood, have supported mountaintop mining as critical to the coal industry's existence in West Virginia. Appalachian coal competes not only against other energy sources -- such as cleaner-burning natural gas -- but also against coal imports and other coal-producing regions of the country.
"Intense competition leads to bigger mines," said Mark Muchow, West Virginia's chief administrator for revenue operations. "You need bigger mining operations just to stay competitive."
Coal industry officials also contend the miners are careful stewards of the land, strictly adhering to laws requiring them to rehabilitate sheared-off mountains by planting grass and trees. Some claim a positive aspect to the toppling of West Virginia's famous green peaks: In a region where flat land is at a premium, the industry has created what officials describe as "unique" spaces for commercial development or wildlife habitat. "People have used these sites to build high schools and golf courses -- they see it as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create jobs," said Gerard, the National Mining Association president. "Some of the sites are so beautifully reclaimed, many people can't tell the difference."
But the environmental damage is hard to miss. In mining areas, the waste rock piles up in huge "valley fills" that are sometimes more than a mile long and hundreds of feet deep. They have buried more than 700 miles of headwater streams across central Appalachia, government studies show.
Other impacts are felt downstream. Federal water-quality studies have found substantially higher levels of selenium, a mineral that is toxic to fish in high doses -- in rivers near the mines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as many as 244 species, including several that are endangered, were being affected by the loss of forest and aquatic habitats. "The individual and cumulative impacts to both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are unprecedented," the agency's West Virginia field office concluded in a September 2001 report.