Most people who don’t live in the eastern United States have never heard of mountaintop removal (MTR), a process that is generally linked to coal mining operations in the Appalachian Mountain region. This is not surprising since the practice is confined to a relatively small geographic area and an industry that is dying out amidst fuels that are cleaner and cheaper to use (not to mention meeting environmental standards). But those who know about these operations are generally appalled by the amount of damage caused to the mining site and the surrounding areas, despite legal obligations concerning cleanup after the fact. It is for this reason that the practice should be banned.
To begin with, you may be wondering just what the process of mountaintop removal entails. In truth it’s pretty much exactly what you might expect from the name. When a mountain is found to have veins of coal near the surface, it is targeted for this type of mining. The practice begins with the removal of trees and ground cover, which are generally destroyed through the process of clear-cutting. From there, the top layer of soil is removed to a nearby location, supposedly for later replacement. At this point, the ecosystem has been disrupted and wildlife has either fled or been inadvertently destroyed. Then the mining begins in earnest as heavy machinery moves in to harvest the coal seams that are near the surface, releasing pollutants that seep into the air, water, and ground, potentially spreading to outlying areas (some of which may be inhabited by humans).
Once the coal has been mined and the landscape destroyed, to the point that the cost-effectiveness of the operation begins to wane, the mining corporation responsible closes up shop. They may or may not replace the topsoil at the end – many do in order to meet their minimum environmental obligations. But the damage has been done. Often the topsoil is not enough to cover the scarred landscape and the waste and pollution makes it impossible to replant, anyway. Not that the mining companies would lift a finger to do so. And without plants, the topsoil will quickly be carried away by wind and water, causing its own form of pollution (particles in the air imbued with toxins and sediment in rivers that can clog up channels and harm even more wildlife downstream). The landscape will be left barren, ugly, and devoid of life.
So despite being an eyesore, these mountaintop removal sites also pose serious environmental hazards. They not only ruin the ecosystems that have been in place for thousands of years; they can also lead to health risks for human populations nearby, and even have a negative impact miles away if harmful toxins from the site are spread through the phenomenon of chemical drift. In short, these operations are a dangerous blight upon the landscape that defies all reason. Whether you live in an area that has been subjected to such procedures or you simply can’t stand by while such flagrant abuse of the environment is being carried out, consider writing to your local congressmen and senators. If the voice of the people is loud enough, something will have to be done.