Mountaintop Removal Mining Scars Landscapes, Communities

mountain top removal mining
Mountaintop removal mining in Pickering Knob, West Virginia. Photo by Kent Kessinger, courtesy of Southwings and Appalachian Voices.

Public awareness of the relatively new but highly invasive method of surface mining known as “mountaintop removal” is growing in the United States, thanks to a combination of cutting-edge technology and the work of advocacy groups. The unconventional extraction process involves removing the upper layers of mountains to expose the seams of coal beneath, leaving behind huge swaths of scarred landscape. The effects of such mining in the heavily exploited Appalachian region of the eastern United States can now be viewed through the Google Earth database at, a website created by seven local organizations.

Since the 1970s, when mountaintop removal was first introduced in Appalachia, the procedure “has gone on under a cloak of secrecy,” according to Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of the North Carolina-based grassroots organization Appalachian Voices. “Unless you have the experience of flying over the region in a small plane, it’s hard to understand the scale of mountaintop removal,” she says. Even local residents frequently do not know the extent of the damage, which has destroyed more than 450 mountains and summits in the eastern states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. According to a 2003 U.S. government report, more than 800 square miles (1,287 kilometers) of mountains in the United States have been destroyed, the equivalent of a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) wide swath of devastation from New York to San Francisco.

But mountaintop removal mining is more than just an eyesore, opponents note. While the coal industry contends that the procedure provides jobs and is safer than conventional underground or surface mining, environmentalists say the practice can in fact bring great harm to local communities and economies. Before mining begins, the mountains are cleared of vegetation and blasted with dynamite to remove as much as 500–800 feet (152–244 meters) of rock and soil. The debris is then dumped into nearby valleys, frequently burying streams. Mountaintop removal also requires the building of earthen dams to contain the toxic sludge produced during coal processing. All of these factors contribute to an increased risk of flooding, damage to nearby homes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of drinking water supplies. Moreover, because mountaintop removal is so dependent on machines, it provides only a fraction of the jobs conventional mining offers, opponents argue.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.