The Appalachian Mountains provide some of the most remarkable views and adventures in the Southeast, bringing well-over 22 million visitors to the region each year. The mountains are over 480 million years old, making them the oldest in the world. Additionally, 25.2 million Americans or 8.1% of the country’s population call the region home, raising families and building livelihoods amongst the mountains. It’s impossible to overstate the region’s importance in the formation of the American identity; countless novels and poems received their inspiration from its sights, historic battles have been fought over its resources and the nation’s first pioneers ventured across its terrain. Despite their historic and modern importance, the Appalachian mountains are slowly but surely being destroyed by coal companies and the practice of mountaintop removal.
In order to reach sources of coal that are often buried 500 feet or more below mountain surfaces, coal companies engage in the practice of mountaintop removal, or mining. First, acres of forest, vegetation, and topsoil are removed to clear access to the mountain, often resulting in the death of ecosystems and the excessive waste of timber and other products. Coal companies then utilize thousands of pounds of explosives to blast hundreds of feet of elevation from the tops of mountains in order to begin mining. The mining process uses enormous machines called drag-lines, enabling companies to avoid hiring hundreds of miners. Finally, wastes from the process are often dumped into nearby valleys, polluting streams and important water sources that sustain surrounding communities. Despite regulations dictating mined areas be redeveloped for economic purposes, less than 3% of mined mountain areas undergo any sort of revitalization process, and experts estimate the destroyed forests won’t reappear for hundreds of years.
Obviously, this practice is incredibly detrimental to the environment by eliminating entire mountains, promoting deforestation and producing hazardous wastes that too often pollute surrounding areas and impact the health of locals. The states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and parts of Tennessee see the vast majority of mountaintop removal, endangering their local communities and tourism industries. Even more distressing, the coal produced from these mining sites will go on to produce massive amounts of air pollution in the region, endangering the long-term health of not just Appalachian communities but tourists from around the country.
Multiple studies have found that since companies began mining in the region, parts of Central Appalachia have become 40% flatter when compared with their original height. The average slope of the land as a whole dropped 10%. These statistics indicate an alarming trend, one that could lead to the eventual destruction of the entire mountain range if not kept in check.
It is vital for members of Appalachian communities to express their concerns with these coal companies to local officials and state authorities, but it is equally important that the rest of the country advocate for national policies that eliminate or restrict mountaintop removal, even when politicians seem s intent on sustaining the problematic practices of the mountaintop mining industry.