Is There a Middle Road in the Mountain Top Removal Debate?

Alpha Natural Resources’ Black Bear Surface Mine restoration site
Alpha Natural Resources’ Black Bear Surface Mine restoration site

by Frank Kilgore

To help illustrate what can be done on a large scale to optimize the reclaiming of Appalachia’s huge boundaries of abandoned mines, Tim Cox’s photos of two of Alpha Natural Resources’ most heralded reclamation projects are showcased throughout this article: Black Bear No 4 and the Mingo County project.

Over thirty years ago, the Federal Surface Mining Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. I was invited to attend the Rose Garden signing ceremony because of the work that I and many others had done to get the Act passed. When he signed the bill, President Carter complained that the bill had been “watered down” and said he hoped it would be a start for stronger laws to come.

Being from the coalfields of Virginia, I was keenly aware that our state had the reputation for having the weakest reclamation controls in the nation at that time. The strip mining of coal was allowed within five feet of an adjoining landowner’s boundary line, public roads were sometimes undermined, blasting limits were almost non-existent, and some explosions even registered on the Richter Scale at Virginia Tech, nearly a hundred miles from the blasting sites. Remote private cemeteries were occasionally disturbed; countless miles of one hundred foot highwalls were left behind; millions of tons of loose rock and soil were dumped down slope over trees, vegetation, and streams; and rocks were routinely blasted through the roofs of homes and even through the roofs of the gym and indoor pool at Clinch Valley College, where I was a student while working full-time for the U.S. Forest Service and organizing the Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation (VCBR).

Butch Lambert, DMME, Mine Superintendent Jimmy “Popcorn” Adkins, Mike Quillen, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, and Benny Wampler, DMME, with some of the company’s multiple reclamation awards.
Butch Lambert, DMME, Mine Superintendent Jimmy “Popcorn” Adkins, Mike Quillen, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, and Benny Wampler, DMME, with some of the company’s multiple reclamation awards.

VCBR pushed for better reclamation laws, not an outright ban of strip mining. Being in the middle of two extremes (no controls vs. no mining), our little group received the wrath of the most reactionary coal operators and the derision of national environmental groups that wanted a ban or nothing. Citizens of the Virginia coalfields already had “nothing” in the way of nearly non-existent strip mine controls, so the federal law looked pretty good to most of us.

A showdown occurred in Washington, D.C., when VCBR bucked every environmental organization working on the strip mining issue by refusing to endorse a strip mining ban. Not only was a strip mining ban impractical, but it was foolish to take such an untenable position. A blanket ban flies in the face of private property rights and would have left no feasible way to clean up and reclaim the hundreds of thousands of acres of “abandoned” strip mined sites throughout Appalachia.

Reclamationist of the Year – Jimmy “Popcorn” Adkins
Reclamationist of the Year – Jimmy “Popcorn” Adkins

The Federal Strip Mining Act provides for an assessment per ton for strip and deep mined coal to fund the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program, which has brought hundreds of millions in reclamation dollars into the Appalachian coalfields to create jobs and address mine acid drainage, dangerous highwalls, smoldering sulpher-spewing slag heaps, sunken or contaminated water aquifers, and a landscape that looks nothing like the verdant Appalachian Mountains we all should cherish.

Our coalfield region again faces another “all-or-nothing” proposition that has been sensationalized by friends and foes of mountain top removal (MRT). Let me start this line of reasoning by saying that about 80% of existing strip mining permits in Virginia are on previously mined lands. In other words, in most instances these are abandoned mine lands that were torn asunder before the Federal Strip Mining Act took effect in 1977 nationwide and even later in Virginia due to a federal lawsuit that took the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously decide in favor of the law’s constitutionality.

Twisted Gun Golf Course after removal of abandoned highwalls, regrading, and revegetation. For more photos and information, visit www.twistedgungc.com
Twisted Gun Golf Course after removal of abandoned highwalls, regrading, and revegetation. For more photos and information, visit www.twistedgungc.com

These abandoned lands will take decades to be reclaimed under the AML program, which is first applied to the worst categories of old sites that pose public dangers. The second priority is the category that poses the most immediate environmental damages. Other categories primarily cover aesthetics, which are far down the list. Given the pace of the AML program, it would take approximately one hundred years to reclaim all of Appalachia’s pre-federal law minesites, if that is even possible. What makes expediting this reclamation process feasible is the re-mining of these old sites and allowing coal companies to take down the soaring highwalls, put in drainage controls, bury acidic rock and soils, install sediment controls, and re-vegetate the land with a much more sustainable and useful covers of grasses and trees.

Most recently, many innovative coal companies such as Virginia’s Alpha Natural Resources have led the way in replanting native hardwoods on less compacted sites, recovering streams, and designing man-made wetlands as a post-mining feature. Through local government initiatives, the re-mining of abandoned lands has resulted in recreation areas, housing tracts, industrial parks, public road corridors, and improved wildlife habitat.

The frequency of this type of planning and post-mining uses needs to be accelerated, not forbidden. The only way that most abandoned lands can be effectively mined is through removing the ridgetops that run for miles atop inaccessible man-made cliffs that block wildlife migration, despoil the viewshed, and seep acidified runoff into receiving streams.

A golfer enjoys the reclaimed Twisted Gun Golf Course.
A golfer enjoys the reclaimed Twisted Gun Golf Course.

Responsible coal companies should be provided incentives to re-mine these polluting eyesores, not told that all MTR is bad and the practice shut down across the board. In exchange, these progressive reclamation methods demonstrated by Alpha and other companies should become mandatory, not optional. Previously unmined lands should be protected as long as possible as our nation transitions to natural gas and renewable energy sources, but abandoned sites need to be re-mined and reclaimed as a national priority.

Once abandoned sites are substantially remined and reclaimed through the most modern techniques feasible, then the untouched lands can be re-evaluated. During this process, which will take decades, we should be phasing in a new economy to the Appalachian coalfields. This transition cannot happen overnight without causing economic devastation in a region already too well known for poverty and related woes.

As the MTR debate rages, coal miners and their families, including my own extended family, should not once again be caught between two competing forces that almost always leave the collaterally wounded unattended.

Restored Stream at Black Bear 1
Restored Stream at Black Bear 1