Some call it mountaintop removal, some
mountaintop mining. Either way, the term refers to a form of surface mining in
which a mountain’s overburden is taken away to reach a coal seam. Coal
companies say this is the most efficient way to mine, while environmentalists
argue that it destroys the ecosystem.
Last month, Tyler Phipps, a junior at the University
of Kentucky submitted a letter to the university’s student newspaper. Phipps pointed to examples of development on
former mine sites in Kentucky, and suggested the term “mountaintop development”
might be a better way to describe the practice.
Phipps’ phrase appealed to many in the coal industry. Two
days later, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, emailed the
story to coal groups, echoing the call of Massey Energy Vice President Mike
Snelling that this might be a good way to re-brand the controversial practice.
“It just sort of struck a favorable note among those of us
who are more directly involved with the coal industry and surface mining here
in West Virginia,” Chris Hamilton
said. “All around the state we have many examples today of industrial,
commercial or recreational facilities that are on post-mine land sites, former
mine sites, where there’s just a tremendous amount of economic development.”
there’s no concerted effort to change the industry’s terminology, but the issue
re-opens a decades-old question about the correlation between surface mining
and economic development.
“If you take a flyover, you can see how little development
there really is,” Vivian Stockman said. She’s an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and says in the southern coalfields, the population,
and a lot of the demand for development, has been driven away by large-scale
“If they’re hoping to, you know, create shopping malls on
some of these, I don’t know where they’re going to get all the shoppers,” she
said. “All the communities around these areas have been driven away.”
Indeed, the most convincing of the state’s development
poster projects are in the northern part of the state. Earlier this month, the
West Virginia Office of Coalfield Community Development released a survey showing
that more than 13,000 jobs have been created on former surface mine sites.
Those 13,000 jobs are spread between 12 counties, and are
disproportionately located in the northern half of the state. The state could
only point to 43 projects created in the 33 years since the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed. In that time, more than 300,000 acres have
been surface mined in West Virginia,
and much of the land remains undeveloped.
Jeff Wood of the Office of Coalfield Community Development
says there’s potential for development in the coalfields, particularly along
Corridor G, through Lincoln, Boone, Logan and Mingo counties.
“Once the mining has ceased and the land has been flattened
or you have rolling hills, of course, along a major four-lane highway, all of
those things come into play,” Wood said.
“So, what our goal would be is to go
down to the local economic developers, particularly along Corridor G, and say
‘here’s what worked along 79, this is now what’s working along 19. What do you
see in the future?'”
Vivian Stockman of OVEC says development shouldn’t be a
justification for more mountaintop removal, because there are already more than
enough undeveloped mine sites in the state.
“Back in 2002 we had some volunteers create some maps for us,”
she said. “There were just massive amounts of land that are not, in any way,
shape or form, developed. It’s a complete myth that West
Virginia needs any more flat land.”
A survey completed last year for the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 89 percent of reclaimed surface mine sites in West
Kentucky and Tennessee
had no post-mining development.
Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association says the
terms “mountaintop removal” and “mountaintop development” are interchangeable,
and with increased regulations, post-mine land should always be left more
valuable than it was before.