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Mountaintop Removal Mining

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

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Categories: Business, Environment
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