Strip Mining On Steroids

It now levels mountains and threatens Appalachia's landscape

The sky was spitting sleet on the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, when the phone rang at Glenna Wiley's house in the tiny hamlet of Kistler in southern West Virginia. A friend warned that an earthen dam had burst a dozen miles up Buffalo Creek. Mrs. Wiley rushed to her porch and watched in amazement as a wall of coal-black water swept down the stream. She saw a neighbor's face "turn red and then white," she recalls. "He saw the bodies in the water."

All told, 125 people were killed after the collapse of a dam built to hold waste from a surface coal mine. The disaster became a national rallying cry that resulted in a 1977 federal law to oversee strip mines and reclaim thousands of acres of ravaged land. But 20 years later, strip-mining poses a new threat to the Buffalo Creek region. A new generation of giant motorized shovels and huge dump trucks is being used to cut down entire mountaintops on a scale unknown 25 years ago.

The 1977 law requires that land be returned to its original contour after strip-mining, but it specifically exempts mountaintop removal. Now, environmental concern about the technique is growing. At massive mining sites--some as large as 25,000 acres--electric shovels 20 stories high crunch down hundreds of feet to reach deposits of low-sulfur coal. That's the type of coal the 1990 Clean Air Act says electric utilities must use.

In the process, the topography of the rugged Appalachians is being changed forever. Millions of tons of stripped-away earth are discarded in "valley fills" that could disrupt water tables and stream flows, affect wildlife, and contribute to flooding. "What strip mines used to do is nothing close to what they are doing now," says Frita Williams, a widow who lives several miles from a huge mining operation on Kayford Mountain near the town of Whitesville.

Removing a mountaintop can cost up to $100 million, so such operations still amount to no more than 25 of West Virginia's 4,300 surface mines. There are even fewer in Kentucky. Only the largest companies--such as Arch Coal Inc., which has $1.3 billion in revenues, and A.T. Massey Inc., a subsidiary of Fluor Corp.--can afford such undertakings. Arch Coal, formed last July by the merger of Arch Mineral and Ashland Coal Inc., is the biggest practitioner, with six mountaintop removal mines.

But the practice could easily grow. Utilities have an insatiable demand for low-sulfur coal, the best of which is found in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. West Virginia's coal production last year shot up to 174 million tons, the state's best year since 1947. And easily accessible coal is already mined out. Unlike high-sulfur coal, which runs in thick seams, low-sulfur coal tends to run in thin strips near mountaintops.

STREAM-CONSCIOUS. The biggest concern with mountaintop removal is with valley fills where waste earth is dumped. Industry officials say the state's 4,000 valley fills are designed so they don't alter streams and that they create more level, usable land. Says Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining & Reclamation Assn.: "With mountaintop removal, you get 100% mineral recovery, you can't mine again, and you get better land use than you ever had in its natural state."

Nonsense, says Cindy Rank, an activist with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in Rock Cave. "We're burying hundreds of miles of streams and changing the geology 600 feet deep" by eliminating layers of limestone and other porous rocks, she says.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement, created to oversee the 1977 strip-mining law, has been gutted by budget cuts, its total staff slashed by one-third, from 1,100 employees nationwide to 670. Ironically, how many Central Appalachian mountains will be lopped off in the future depends on how fast the economy grows and how badly the U.S. wants cleaner, low-sulfur coal. If that demand continues to grow, the people of West Virginia's coal country may pay the price.