New Reports “Debunk the Myth” of Mountaintop Removal Reclamation
Operators of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining sites would have you believe that they perform an invaluable service digging out energy from our ancient mountains and that the mutilated land is poised for “beneficial economic development” such as oil and gas exploration, golf courses, prisons, and housing.
That development is lagging pitifully, though.
With their recent studies of the MTR landscape, the non-profits Appalachian Voices and Natural Resources Defense Council claim to debunk “the myth of mountaintop removal reclamation.” Full reports and an interactive map are available.
(Fail. Epic Fail. Photo: ILoveMountains.org.)
Of the 500 mountains subject to MTR, the reports scrutinized 410 sites (90 are actively being mined), and found that only about 25-45 sites have post-mining development on them.
Many people outside of Appalachia know that MTR is a quick and rapacious way to harvest coal. They are familiar with the coal industry’s promise of cheap energy. But less familiar is the commonly peddled incentive of economic development on flattened lands.
(Whoops. Got an extra ridgeline we can hide that behind? No? Okay. Photo: ILoveMountains.org.)
“It is the number-one talking point, by far, in the region,” said Matt Wasson, of Appalachian Voices, “It actually does resonate more with people locally, more than people outside the region can believe.”
That promise doesn’t seem to hold water, though, with just 6-11% of post-MTR lands developed.
Types of Development
The studies identified sites that did show definite post-mining development, including 4 industrial parks, 3 oil and gas fields, 2 airports, 3 golf courses, 2 municipal parks, 1 ATV training center, 1 hospital, 1 county fairground, and 1 federal prison.
Some of the sites were quite functional, according to Wasson, who had seen nearly all of them first-hand. This was mainly because of their low lying situation and access to water. But he added the caveat,
“Those sites could have been developed the way they are without any mining permit…it’s the use and abuse of mine permitting that is the problem here.”
Some of the sites were ambiguous in their post-mining use. NRDC states,
18 locations were identified as having “possible” post- mining economic land uses. Frequently some evidence of potential economic reclamation existing on these sites, such as mowed fields or improved structures, but specific land use was not clear. In some cases, it was not clear whether structures were abandoned or directly connected to former or existing mining activity on site or nearby.
In the steep Appalachian mountains, even when reclamation is honestly pursued, the feasibility of development may be nill.
For example, the wind power developer Gamesa cited some prohibitive expenses in building a wind farm on reclaimed mine land versus virgin land, in a 2008 presentation to the West Virginia Division of Energy.
The Big Sandy prison, near Inez, Kentucky, is another example of the difficulty of construction on former MTR sites. During construction, Big Sandy was estimated to cost about 16% more than three other prisons of identical capacity. It was built successfully, but only after astronomical sums were spent to stabilize the ground. Even with the extra investment, some of its structures have reportedly begun to falter.
According to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977, mining companies are required to restore mined land to its “approximate original contour” (AOC).
However, the law allows for exceptions to the rule,
Sec. 515(e) of SMCRA allows a “variance from the requirement to restore [lands] to approximate original contour…for surface mining of coal where the owner of the surface knowingly requests, in writing, as part of the permit application, that such a variance be granted so as to render the land, after reclamation, suitable for an industrial, commercial, residential, or public use (including recreational facilities).” Such variances are allowed “provided that the watershed control of the area is improved; and further provided that backfilling with spoil material…cover[s] completely the highwall which material will maintain sta= bility following mining and reclamation.” (SMCRA Sec. 515(e))
In 1980, District Court Judge Flannery tried to limit variances to steep slope mining areas, but that was undone in 1983 by the Office of Surface Mining.
Ken Ward Jr. describes the discrepancies of SMCRA quite keenly in his Coal Tattoo blog. As he alludes in several of his articles, the AOC issue is the key to effectual enforcement of SMCRA.
An Economic Pitfall?
About 1.2 million acres and 500 mountains have literally fallen to MTR in Appalachia. You probably already knew that, since Appalachian surface coal represented about 2.5% of America’s energy supply, as of 2008 (EIA).
(MTR in Appalachia. Image: ILoveMountains.org.)
It’s quite a price to pay for a small amount of cheap energy and a mostly unfulfilled promise of development. Not to mention, we’re losing out on the former; in its 2009 Supply and Demand report, the Energy Information Administration reports,
Coal production in the Appalachian Region ended 2009 at 339.3 million short tons, a decrease of 13.0 percent, or 50.9 million short tons, its lowest level in almost 50 years.
The “irreversible” damage of MTR tips the scales of reason even further.
The Fight Continues
MTR abolitionists will continue in their mission, Wasson assured. They hope to convey to Congress and other decision makers who can it see first-hand, the lackluster reality of post-mining development rhetoric.
“These reports will be used as a tool to dismantle that whole argument.”