The Destructive Process of Mountaintop Removal


(images via Wired and xt_marie on flickr)

Mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian Mountains is among the most destructive actions that humanity has ever taken against the planet — and it is still happening today. The long process of removing a mountaintop to access the coal underneath puts local communities at risk of water and air pollution and turns entire ecosystems to rubble.


(image via Climate Ground Zero)

Coal mining companies in West Virginia and Kentucky have had free picking of mountain tops to mine, with one located just 400 yards away from an elementary school. While pending legislation could make the process much harder, current law is built in their favor.


(images via

Step One: Clearing the Forest

After determining a location, mining companies begin by clearing the top of the mountain of all trees and softer topsoil.  Since the valleys bellow will later be filled with rubble, they will often also clear the trees below.


(images via Climate Ground Zero and It’s Getting Hot in Here)

Step Two: Blasting The Mountain

Using ammonium nitrate explosives, workers blast through up to 1,000 feet of the mountain in order to access coal seams. Dust, silica and chemicals rain on nearby communities during the blasting period, with residents often living within the “blasting zone.”


(image via the West Virginia Gazette)

Step Three: Digging Through Debris

Once the surface of the mountain is obliterated with explosives, a team uses an enormous machine called a dragline excavator to move the rubble. The machines, which run up to $100 million, can hold the equivalent of 24 cars in its bucket, making the digging process quick and easy.


(images via NRDC and

Step Four: Dumping Waste into Valley Fills

The waste is then dumped into neighboring valleys to create “valley fills.” The rubble, often laced with selenium, can still legally be dumped directly onto streams, thanks to a rule-change by the Bush administration. By 2001, 724 miles had been buried by valley fills.


(image via

Step Five: Removing & Washing the Coal

The coal acquired from mountaintop removal requires more extensive cleaning and processing than the coal from traditional bottom-up mines. The waste from the process — a thick black sludge — is then stored in makeshift reservoirs in nearby valleys which are known to leak into the water supply.


(images via United Mountain Defense and

Step Six: The Cover-Up/Reclamation

The mining company is required by law to attempt a restoration of the area after mining is completed. While mines are required to return the are to its previous state, mountaintop mines only need to create a plateau suitable for vegetation to regrow. However, the soil is often unsuitable for plant life and sits barren, creating a huge risk for landslides.


(images via West Virginia Gazette and Climate Ground Zero)

The Fight Against Mountaintop Removal

Organizations like Appalachian Voices, United Mountain Defense, and other local groups continue to fight for tougher regulations on mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Last month, a federal judge issued a promising ruling to require mountaintop mining permits to undergo a more stringent approval process.


Mountaintop Removal on Google Earth

Appalachian Voices has created multiple layers for Google Earth that explain and illustrate mountaintop mining in further detail. Using the tool, you can view videos on the process, tour “memorials” of fallen mountains, view the six steps in progress, and overlay mine sites on major cities to show their enormous size. For instructions on using the tool, visit