An Appalachian Alternative to Mountaintop Removal Coal Mines

| 1/30/2013 5:00:00 PM

Tags: mountaintop removal coal mining, renewable energy, community wind power, sustainable solutions blog, mother earth news, Lindsay McNamara,


In the last 30 years, the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140 percent while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs.  Alternatively, the wind industry in the United States. already operates more than 35,000 turbines, and employs 85,000 people — a number equal to those employed by the coal industry. One of the best solutions for high poverty rates in Appalachia, especially central Appalachia, is to phase out mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. This solution will eliminate a variety of problems in the region.  MTR coal mining has ruined land that would otherwise be suitable for viable agriculture, sustainable forest products and other economic developments. Although the coal industry frequently boasts of MTR improving land for other uses, only about 10 percent of former MTR sites have been converted to anything besides a barren area of rock.Another issue with MTR coal mining is its impact on county tax revenues through absentee land ownership. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroad companies bought immense amounts of surface and mineral rights from local mountaineers. According to the last study of land ownership patterns in Appalachia (completed in 1981), over 60 percent of West Virginia’s land is owned by landholding corporations.  This percentage is even higher in coalfield counties. The landholding companies do not pay their fair share of property tax, causing lower tax revenues throughout the region.

mountaintop coal mining 

Finally, coal production is expected to decline 40 percent from 2010-2015, according to the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, creating a need for other economic options.  In 2000, the U.S. Geologic Survey estimated that the most economically recoverable coal in West Virginia would be mined out within 20-30 years. West Virginia must move away from coal mining in order to have a sustained economy in the future.

To replace mountaintop removal, the Appalachian region should invest in both energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The Appalachian Regional Commission has invested over $4.3 million and leveraged $18 million in private investment that improved energy efficiency and reduced business costs. This type of funding should not only continue, but grow. A downside to this solution is its reliance on government assistance funding. Hopefully, once the programs are implemented, the communities will become self-sustaining and no longer need government support. Funding should also target Central Appalachia to implement the strongest concentration of poverty in the region.

In terms of renewable energy, a non-profit based in West Virginia, Coal River Mountain Watch, has proposed wind turbines on top of Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia instead of continuing coal mining. In 2007, a wind potential study was conducted to see if there was the potential to place wind turbines on Coal River Mountain. The wind potential and subsequent economic studies found that it is possible to place 328 megawatts of wind energy on Coal River Mountain. That’s enough to power 70,000 West Virginia homes and provide $1.7 million in taxes to the county every year. It is also estimated that the proposed wind farm would only lead to the clearing of 50-100 acres of forest — less than 2 percent of the proposed mining area.  The four surface mining permits proposed for the same area would produce coal and energy for only 14 years, while the wind farm would offer renewable energy for much longer.

eric mathis
9/13/2013 9:37:54 AM

Lindsay... Sorry for the belated response. I am not throwing the bath out with the bath water. Its as simple as this, a lot, I mean A LOT of groups are working together (collaboratively) on economic diversification in Central Appalachia and a small few are working on the more radical end to STOP something - here being MTR. These groups have their reasons and I do not attempt to validate or invalidate them but when it comes to real world economic development, that is, the daunting task of creating a real-world job that is sustained over time. Working together means a genuine interest to reach across the table and sometimes this means working with nontraditional allies. This, from my perspective, is simply not possible with aforementioned groups like OVEC and CRMW...

7/25/2013 2:51:13 PM

I have written two songs about the destructive mountaintop removal coal-mining in Appalachia. One is called “Last Man on the Mountain” and calls for the end to this destructive practice, and the other is called “No Auburn, No Orange, No Rust,” and is a more personal look at the effects of MTR. These songs can be heard in their entirety at my website

High-quality MP3 versions of each song can be purchased (at my website,, or for just 99 cents, and all on-line proceeds of sales of these songs will be donated to groups fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining. MTR must end. Bill McIver, singer-songwriter California

lindsay mcnamara
4/3/2013 2:00:46 PM

Eric, thank you for your comment. However, I think that instead of placing blame on one group or another, we should all be working together towards solutions that are healthier for people and the planet.

eric mathis
4/3/2013 11:42:51 AM

Apologies, for the last post (i.e., errors) as I tried submitting from my phone but given the fact that I see this as a very serious issue as I have dedicated my life to economic diversification in the coalfields of central Appalachia and noticing that Lindsay takes time in answering responses I will begin with the original post: "I can't overstate this enough that the wind farm is completely untenable based on concrete barriers and I am unsure why CRMW still promotes this wind farm as a viable project. Lindsay, I appreciate your enthusiasm for promoting economic diversification in the coalfields but please do your research and fact checking. Perhaps CRMW is more to blame than you." Additionally, and in response to your comment below "its hard to be patient..." the fact is that we have to be, patient. Impatience is one of the #1 factors of why environmentalist (for the most part) never accomplish anything in central Appalachia. I also invite you to come and see the coalfields yourself outside of the destructive lens of environmental groups like CRMW and OVEC. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. If you would like examples of why the wind farm is a hoax, I would be happy to supply some basic points.

eric mathis
4/3/2013 11:23:05 AM

I can't overstate this enough that the wind farm is completely untenable based on concrete barriers and I am unsure why CRMW still promottes tye wind farm as a viable project. Lindsay, I appreciate your enthusiasm for promoting economic diversification in the coalfields but please do your research and fact checking. Perhaps CRMW is more to blame than you. (J. Eric Mathis)

lindsay mcnamara
2/6/2013 2:57:23 PM

Hi Sally, as I am unable to reply to your last comment for some reason, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to discuss this topic with me. I was curious about what you wanted to post, I'm sorry it didn't go through as well. Thank you very much, best of luck to you as well.

lindsay mcnamara
2/6/2013 2:55:23 PM

I do agree that all engineering solutions involve compromises, but I do not agree that we cannot have economic success and plenty of jobs with a renewable energy economy. It is frustrating to me sometimes that those are often seen as one or the other, not both working together for a healthy planet and healthy economy. I also disagree with your political intentions vs. scientific considerations statement, there is plenty of hard science behind renewable energy/the environmental dangers of mining. It is unfortunate that the environment is such a polarizing issues today, after all Richard Nixon, of all people, created the EPA.

t brandt
2/2/2013 11:45:34 AM

Thanks for responding. All engineering solutions involve compromises. Cheap energy & economic success vs picturesque view & no jobs.The run-offf is a problem that needs to be addressed. Open pit mining means less danger to the miners. I'd like to see more articles here that address both sides of the questions instead of those that show only the PC side.... Ever notice how sides are taken in so many environmental issues, split into "liberal" vs "conservative" camps? It's because the arguments are based so often on political intentions rather than scientific considerations.

sally orrick
2/1/2013 11:43:56 PM

I also had a long (potentially "thoughtful") reply regarding reclimation and the duties of the mining company and the bonds needed to post prior to getting a permit. I also had a link to the EIA website for the 5.4% renewable energy in 2012....but sadly all that didn't get through the website moderators for some forever... good luck!

lindsay mcnamara
2/1/2013 9:08:47 PM

Sally, I'm glad to hear that! I hope that is true throughout coal country and yes, you're right, materials to help potential erosion are a good thing.

lindsay mcnamara
2/1/2013 9:04:58 PM

I did enjoy your suicide comment, though I don't think it is a credible argument.

lindsay mcnamara
2/1/2013 9:03:01 PM

Hey T, While you may have a point in (a), I do agree land reclamation takes time, it is hard to be patient as the debris runs off these sites and into local waterways everyday. I happen to think wind farms are beautiful and enhance the view, but thats my own personal opinion. In response to (c), the 30 year figure shifts each year as more oil/gas becomes "available" however, that availability is now completely different then it was in 1883. We have transitioned from "easy oil" to "tough oil," like tar sands. I'm going to enjoy your suicide comment, as it is only logical to plan for the future, long term, not in 5 year bits.

t brandt
2/1/2013 12:00:03 PM

I gotta agree wiith Sally: (a) it's well known that the govt fudges the employment figures for green energy. They include everyone from the guy who sweeps the floor to the presidient of the corp as a "green worker." 82,000 is the number of actual coal miners, 20,000 of them in WV. You're gunna replace 20,000 with 40 or 50 and produce energy at 3x the cost of that from coal. Good economics?...(b).Land reclamation takes time. Be patient. I'd much rather see reclaimed land than the behemoth wind mills polluting the view for miles...(c).Switch to altenates now because coal will only last another 30 yrs anyways? By your logic then, we should all commit suicide right now because we'll all eventually die anyways. Not to mention your "30 yr" figure is probably wrong. WV has already mined 12B tons since 1883 & has another 53B left.

sally orrick
1/31/2013 11:32:21 PM

Also, just to clarify, I have never seen rock used solely in reclamation. I frequently see stones used in valley areas that is put there to aid in (or rather help reduce) potential erosion, but that is to be expected.

lindsay mcnamara
1/31/2013 4:10:05 PM

Hi Sally, thanks for your comment. What source do you have for the 5% figure about renewables? In response to your second "misconception," mines are SUPPOSED to recontour the land, repair drainage areas, and re-seed the land, but I have seen very little evidence of this occurring (as it should) after every mine site. Rock has, under law, been declared a suitable alternative to soil in the reclamation of coal mines. I would hardly think the land is a "new forest," at most a few new trees would be planted, but never back to the original beauty of the forest before the coal site.

sally orrick
1/31/2013 12:39:07 PM

A couple misconceptions I need to clarify: The first sentence talks about the wind industry employing vastly more people than the coal industry. This is not a good thing – renewables as a total (including solar), only provided just over 5% of the electricity generation in the US last year. By the logic of the author, what we really should be doing is all powering the US by riding on bicycles – it will employ even more people than the wind industry. This is simple economics. Secondly, the author states that 90% of the post mountaintop removal sites are simply barren rock. This is also incorrect – mines will reclaim the land after use, which means they will recontour the land, repair drainage areas, and re-seed the land. A drive through West VA or Kentucky will illustrate various stages of reforestation of this land. The land is not barren rock, but a new forest (or in a small number of the cases. A new school or airport, etc). I hope more care is taken in future articles.

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