Residents say mountaintop removal, or MTR, in the coal hills of West Virginia is altering ridgelines, ravaging the environment and a way of life. Hills once lush with trees are stripped bare, carved away and flattened by explosives. It’s a method of mining ideal for accessing thin coal seams or those close to the surface that can’t be reached from underground, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.
Flat-topped mountains are becoming monuments to the polarizing force of the coal industry in southern West Virginia coal hill communities. The battle between the environmental impact of mines and the need for work as mining jobs recede and become more mechanized is pitting neighbor against neighbor and, in some cases, ripping families apart. The environmental and job losses brought on by mountaintop removal are part of the increasingly devastating impact the coal industry has had in recent decades on the West Virginian economy it dominates.
Underground mining produced 89.5 million tons in 2012, or about 5,800 tons per worker, according to the state coal association’s data. Surface mining, such as MTR, produced about 40 million tons, or about 8,200 tons per worker. Opponents say MTR allows mining companies to cut personnel overhead.
“Ever since this large-scale surface mining came into the area, there’s been a gradual decrease in the number of jobs for people around here,” Walk said. “That’s not because of environmental regulation. That’s just because of the mechanization in the coal industry not needing as many people to blow off the top of a mountain as they used to crawl back into a hole.”