Posted by: JohnnyRook | August 12, 2008

Bush’s Appalachian War: Bombing Ancient Mountains

The following post is by guest contributor Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse. An earlier version appeared on Daily Kos on October 27, 2007. The issues that it brings up are no less relevant now than they were then. (Check out this link for an update on the grassroots movement to pass the Clean Water Protection Act. As James Hansen has pointed out we must stop our use of coal if we are to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points.

Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.

What Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse makes quite plain, is that there is no such thing as “clean coal” from an overall environmental point of view. While carbon capture and sequestration, supposing it can be made to work, would be a big step toward solving coal’s greenhouse gas problem (Dr. Hansen’s focus) it does nothing to deal with the environmental and human cost of mountaintop removal. The burning of coal, a primitive 19th century technology, has no place in a modern portfolio of power generated from wind, solar, geothermal, etc. [JR]

Bush cites his “global war on terror” and the need for energy independence as reasons to legalize the killing of mountains from a range that has lived for millions of years.  There is no way to bring back the over 450 mountaintops that have been razed solely to permit profitable coal mining for his buddies.  Instead of pursuing a clean energy policy, Bush has declared war on Appalachia.  Many Americans are not aware that our self-proclaimed patriotic warrior who loves to preach adherence to religious doctrine is killing our “purple mountain majesties” that God has “shed His grace on” for the benefit of all. This is a war, complete with Bush authorizing mining companies to occupy Appalachia, literally bomb away the mountain summits and kill not just mountains and streams, but people, culture, environmental habitat and species.

During 1985-2001, “approximately 800 square miles of mountains were leveled.”  What would this look like in your state? Well, some perspective is provided by looking at the 10,000 acre Hobet MTR Complex in West Virginia which was superimposed over 38 US cities to show how much land would be destroyed.

This is how it would look in Portland, Oregon:

San Francisco:


Every step of mountaintop removal (MTR) has dire consequences for people, culture and environment.

1. Clear-Cutting Forests

Before mining companies can get their greedy little paws on the black gold, they have to clear-cut native hardwood forests and remove all of the topsoil and vegetation from the mountaintop.  The mining companies may sell the trees to eager lumber companies, or they may simply burn the trees or dump the trees in nearby valleys.

The Southern Appalachian Mountains are an “ancient, topographically diverse” range and it is this antiquity and topographic diversity that provided high levels of biodiversity “unparalleled in the temperate zone.”  It is a confluence of factors — such as age, north-south range alignment which allows species to easily migrate, elevation gradients of gorges and summits that allow temperature changes to protect species —  that made the mountains one of the “richest temperate areas” and one of our top biodiversity hotspots:

When the mining companies kill “America’s own little miniature rain forest,” they are also killing the “world’s most diverse temperate hardwood forest” that functions as the “carbon sinks and lungs of the East Coast:”

According to a rough estimate by West Virginia University bio-geochemist William Peterjohn, the deforestation could add as much as 138 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and that’s not even counting the even-larger CO2 emissions from burning the coal.

The EPA reported in 2003 that 7%  or 400,000 acres of “rich and diverse temperate forest” had been killed during 1985-2001. That same year another 20, 579 acres were approved for strip mining, which is triple the previous year and is the most new acreage approved by our government for stripping since 1989. In 2006, it was estimated that another 100,000 acres had been killed since that EPA report.  

An EPA report states that if there are no restrictions, “2,200 square miles of Appalachian forests — an area twice the size of Rhode Island— will be eliminated by 2012.”

Another direct impact of stripping away trees, vegetation and topsoil from the mountain top is to increase surface runoff which increases floods.  The conditions for flooding are enhanced by the filling of valleys with the rock and soil that used to comprise the mountaintop as this fill now blocks natural drainage patterns.

Some small towns have been hit by 5 major floods in 18 months after not experiencing a major flood since 1957.

In Chopping Block Hollow, “three so-called hundred-year floods happened in 10 days” in 2002.

2.  Blasting 800-1,000 Feet Of Mountaintop Away!

After the native hardwood forests are killed, the mining companies use explosives to now kill the mountaintop on Appalachians formed millions of years ago by blowing apart as much as 800-1,000 feet of the mountaintop.  Layer after layer of rocks are bombed until the mountaintop is gone.

Thousands of bombs go off daily in Appalachia that can be 10 to 100 times (pdf file) the force of the blast that killed 168 at Oklahoma City Federal Building.

It is claimed that “every four days …more explosives are used against Appalachia’s hills than were used by the US military in the entire Afghanistan bombing campaign (pdf file). Every day in Appalachia, the blasting is the equivalent of 1,000 Oklahoma City bombings.”

The EPA recognized that the “dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong [that] they crack the foundations and walls of houses.”  The blasts are also cracking the foundations of water wells and the land.

The blasting also creates clouds of rock and coal dust outdoors and in homes.

There is no published research into pollution caused by explosive residues, but “when the explosives go off, you can smell and see the pollution coming down, the ammonium nitrate.”

One morning a mom heard her 12-year-old daughter, who was playing in the mountain valley where her family had lived for hundreds of years, scream for help:

Gunnoe rushed outside to find Chrystal coming towards her. Chrystal was coughing and struggling to breath, running from a strange-looking cloud that was moving down the valley and headed towards their house. Gunnoe would later learn the strange cloud came from something known as a “slow burning blast” — an explosion set at the coal mine above her home that failed to ignite and instead burned slowly, releasing a wet toxic cloud of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide.

In the weeks following, Chrystal suffered from a bronchial infection, a consistent cough, nose bleeds and bouts of painful breathing. Her mother, who was also exposed, “had sores on the inside of [her] nose,” she said. “First they take our land, then the water, now the air.”

The blasting also causes“fly rock,” more “aptly named fly boulder,” that can “rain off mountains“, endangering resident’s lives and homes” as blasting can send “boulders flying hundreds of yards” into roads and homes.”  This is the mining “army” version of shrapnel.

The EPA reports that more than 800 square miles of mountains have been destroyed, which is “equal to a one-quarter mile wide swath of destruction from New York to San Francisco.”

3.  Digging Up Rock And Soil

After the bombs come the draglines, which are gigantic 2,000 ton, 20 story-high earth-moving machines that can scoop tons (pdf file) of “overburden” or “spoils”  – rock, soil and debris — so that mining companies can reach the seams of coal.  The scoops on the draglines can “hold 100,000 pounds, or as much weight as 40 Toyota Corollas.” While the mining companies call this “overburden” or “spoils,” this is the rock and soil that previously comprised the mountaintop (pdf file).

However, at this stage it is appropriate to call this rock and soil waste because it now also includes the toxic components of the chemicals used for blasting.

4.  Valley Fills Or Dumping Toxic Waste Into Valleys

The blasting blends together the rock and dirt from the former mountaintop with the blasting chemicals and debris, and this waste is dumped into valleys that are contiguous to the MTR site. The mining companies call this the creation of “valley fills,” which is simply filling the valleys with “millions of tons”  of the waste rock and dirt that may be hundreds of feet deep  depending on whether 500 or 1,000 vertical feet were chopped off the moutaintop. Large mines may be surrounded by several valley fills.  A “single fill may be over 1,000 feet wide and over a mile long (pdf file).”

Imagine a peaceful little stream flowing in the valley of the mountains with its lush habitat for aquatic and riparian habitat critters. All of a sudden tons of rocks, soil and mining debris are dumped on top of the stream, literally suffocating the stream and any life to death.

The CRS notes that valley fills are killing the streams and the aquatic and wildlife habitat (pdf file) supported by the streams, flow patterns are altered, increasing the number and severity of floods and degrading water quality:

Today the volume of a single stream fill can be as much as 250 million cubic yards. As a result, streams are eliminated, stream chemistry is harmed by pollutants in the mining overburden, and downstream aquatic life is impaired. From 1985 to 2001, an estimated 724 stream miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee were covered by valley fills and 1,200 miles of headwater streams were directly impacted by mountaintop mining activities.

During 1985-2001, 6,700 valley fills were approved for central Appalachia. The EPA estimated that during these 16 years, more than 1,200 miles of valley streams had been “impacted” by valley fills and more than 700 miles of streams had been killed, buried entirely.  All these figures are now outdated. But here’s a little perspective: Every 1,000 miles of streams impacted or killed by valley fills is a “greater distance than the length of the entire Ohio River.”

Notice that the EPA distinguished between streams that were buried alive and streams that were otherwise “impacted.”  Government studies show that streams not buried by mining waste “carry high levels of silt and toxic chemicals.” Federal studies “found substantially higher levels of selenium, a mineral that is toxic to fish in high doses — in rivers near the mines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as many as 244 species, including several that are endangered, were being affected by the loss of forest and aquatic habitats.”

A university study found that children were also “impacted” as they  “suffer from an alarmingly high rate of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath — symptoms of something called blue baby syndrome — that can all be traced back to sedimentation and dissolved minerals that have drained from mine sites into nearby streams. Long-term effects may include liver, kidney, and spleen failure, bone damage, and cancers of the digestive tract.”

But, that’s ok. A family whose well has been contaminated may be one of those families who now receive bottled water for drinking by the mining company.

Will the mining companies supply drinking water to America also? This region is also the headwaters of our drinking water supplies for many US cities.

Another “impact” is how the valley fills contribute to flooding. A study by federal regulators predicted that one valley fill “could increase peak runoff flow by as much as 42 percent.”

Our federal government issues permits (pdf file) for these valley fills, which are really valley kills.  In the past, the mining debris was placed at the headwaters of streams with intermittent flow. In recent years, the mining companies have moved to valley fills over any stream “because smaller upstream disposal sites are exhausted (pdf file) and because of the increase in mountaintop mining activity.” The poor mining companies argue that MTR simply “would not be economic or feasible (pdf file) there if producers were restricted from using valleys for the disposal of mining overburden.”  This is why Bush keeps changing regulations and laws to immunize mining companies so that they may legally kill our mountains, valleys and streams in the most profitable manner.

Another problem generated by MTR is the danger of landslides and rockslides from the mining work related to blasting and valley fills. In 2004, a bulldozer dislodged a 1,000 pound boulder from a MTR site, and it then rolled 200 feet down the mountain and crushed to death a sleeping 3 year-old child:

Communities live in fear of valley fills “tumbling down in landslides of unpredictable proportions. As one Kentucky attorney likes to put it: “A valley fill is a time bomb waiting to happen.”

5.   Coal Slurry Time

After killing the mountain, streams and species and some people from the “impacts” of blasting, digging and valley fills, we come to the part of the MTR process where the coal is exposed and removed, and then ready for a little processing treatment before loading onto trucks and trains to ship out.

The coal is washed and treated to remove debris and the blasting residues  and the excess toxic water and black, gooey goop from this process is called coal slurry or sludge, which the mining companies store in open impoundments.  The toxics (pdf file) come from those chemicals used in the processing treatment as well as the fine particles of coal that are in the goop.

According to the Sludge Safety Project, “sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.” Bill Moyers noted that “it’s estimated there’s over one-hundred and ten billion gallons amassed in active West Virginia impoundments.” This toxic goop is stored in open pool impoundments located on top of the flattened mountains and in some cases, the goop is pumped into abandoned underground mines, which means the goop is being released into groundwater basins.

Last year, there were 500 sludge impoundments in Appalachia.

One problem is that the toxic slurry impoundments are held back with unreinforced earthen dams that have been breached, killing the people below and creating more environmental “impacts”:

Buffalo Creek Disaster 1972

In 1972, a coal slurry dam failed in Buffalo Creek valley, flooding the hollow with 132 million gallons of coal waste:  125 people were killed, 1,100 injured, 4,000 people rendered homeless and 16 communities destroyed as well as over 1,000 cars and trucks.

One eyewitness remembers:

“It started out just as a flood would, the water was coming over the bank, then with every succeeding second it came faster and faster. Then the water just rolled, you could see it rolling down the valley. A black wall of water…

“That flood took 10 to 15 minutes, and it was total black sludge water, about 130 million gallons of sludge. And it just moved houses. Like matchsticks they were just being moved. And cars, and we saw trees bend and railroad tracks wrapped around trees…

“Everyone (of the corpses) looked the same. They all looked black. Because it was all black sludge water. This was a sludge pond. This was water they used to wash the coal, then they put it in an earthen dam and over the years just kept building it up and backing it up…They were all black. Hair, nose, mouth. Some were stripped of their clothing, okay? It was horrible. It was a horrible thing for me to see.”

Big Sandy River Disaster 2000

The EPA called this one of the worst environmental disasters in the Southeast. More than 250 million gallons of toxic sludge breached the impoundment — or 25 times the amount of the oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster — and poured into the Big Sandy River and reached the Ohio River 60 miles away. The sludge was laced with poisonous heavy metals (e.g., mercury, lead and arsenic).

At some places, the thick goop was 10 feet deep and in other places 70 yards wide “swallowing backyards, gardens and driveways and annihilating fish and other aquatic life.”  No people were killed. But, “20 miles (32 kilometers) of stream valley would be declared an aquatic dead zone” as “fish, snakes, turtles and other species” were smothered by the sludge. The State wildlife agency estimated that 1.6 million fish were smothered in the molasseslike substance while lawns were “buried up to 7 feet deep in sludge.”

The mining company blamed the disaster on a “sudden and unexpected” collapse of a wall between the impoundment and the mine shaft underneath, but federal and state mine safety records showed that the mining company knew from a similar spill from the same impoundment 6 years earlier that there was this danger.  

Winding Shoals Hollow 2002

During a thunderstorm, the rain-saturated valley fill separated and crashed into a sediment pond, which overflowed, sending a “tidal wave of sediment-laden water churning down Winding Shoals Hollow, destroying two homes, damaging about ten others and hurtling 8-10 vehicles downstream. No one was killed, though there were some narrow escapes.”

More homes destroyed:

Another community to clean-up:

Marshfork School: Disasters Lying In Wait

Throughout Appalachia there is the constant fear of another slurry impoundment disaster. For example, another impoundment houses 3 billion gallons of toxic slurry and an elementary school is located 400 yards downslope from this impoundment. The school is located between the coal silo and football field in the lower left of this photo.

Should this earthen dam breach, “there would be less than three minutes to evacuate the Marsh Fork Elementary School before the water reached 6 feet” and it is feared that the floodwaters would rise to 15 feet at the school.

Even without a slurry flood, every day students are sent home sick with “asthma problems, severe headaches, blisters in their mouths, constant runny noses, and nausea” which may be related to leaks from this impoundment or to the coal silo located so close to the school.

The community is demanding that government provide a new, safe school, but even civil disobedience and protests leave them with no redress.(Photo by Graham Boyle)

People who live near any of the hundreds of slurry impoundments suffer the  constant stress of knowing sludge floods could happen at any time.  Another slurry waste site  — the Brushy Fork slurry – houses 8 billion gallons of toxic sludge 3 miles upstream from the Whitesville community.

“What’s going to happen to all that water if the dam breaks or the basin collapses into an abandoned underground mine?” By some accounts, should the Brushy Fork impoundment ever fail, a wave of sludge 25 feet (7 meters) high could roll over Whitesville in no time flat.

6.  Reclamation

Once the mountains have been razed to denuded, flattened moonscapes, then comes the “reclamation” which the EPA says “may not occur for hundreds of years.” Truth is it will never happen.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) admits that MTR precludes actual restoration (pdf file):

While federal law calls for excess spoil to be placed back in the mined areas — returning the lands to their approximate original contour (AOC) — that result ordinarily cannot be accomplished with mountaintop mining because broken rock takes up more volume than did the rock prior to mining and because there are stability concerns with the spoil pile.

If “stability concerns with the spoil pile” is a reason why razed mountaintops can not be reclaimed by returning the rocks and soil to the mountaintop, why is stability not a concern when these same rocks and soil are dumped into valleys?  This is one reason why our work to obtain more sponsors for the Water Protection Act is so important.

The mining companies assure us that they are “careful stewards of the land” and boast of the benefit of transforming mountains into flatlands:

“People have used these sites to build high schools and golf courses — they see it as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” said Gerard, the National Mining Association president. “Some of the sites are so beautifully reclaimed, many people can’t tell the difference.”

Yes, new golf courses (photo by Vivian Stockman):

Hey folks! It’s “economic development” on a Mingo County mountaintop removal site. That’s right, a golf course for the residents of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation. Don’t mind the silica-laden-dust floating in the air from that mountaintop removal blast over there. Don’t mind the treeless, sun-baking you’ll get on this course. Just shut up and golf.

The feds agreed and gave the mining companies a blanket exemption:

It was not the intent of Smackra, of course, to allow coal companies to walk away from their surface mines and leave them denuded. Stripped mountainsides, the law declared, must be restored to their “approximate original contour” and stabilized with grasses and shrubs, and, if possible, trees. But putting the entire top of a topped-off mountain back together again was an altogether different—and more expensive—matter. So mountaintop mines were given a blanket exemption from this requirement with the understanding that, in lieu of contoured restoration, the resulting plateau would be put to some beneficial public use.

MTR has turned our beautiful, national treasure of Appalachia into a war zone. This video shows the devastation:  The bombings of the mountains, the dumping of rocks and debris into valleys, the flooding that kills, repeated washing away of bridges, the toxic coal slurry impoundments located on top of flattened mountains, and ends with a very powerful google earth video memorial showing our flag waving over each of the over 450 mountains killed:

The coal mining companies rolled out the patriotism card by campaigning in 2004 that “increased coal production could even help win the war against terrorism.”

A Vietnam Veteran does not buy that homeland security baloney, … do you?

“I’ve been coming up through these mountains since I was 5 years old. Now the place looks like an asteroid hit,” Bo Webb, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran, said of the 1,800-acre mountaintop mine above his house in central West Virginia’s Raleigh County. “A lot of us up here have fought for our country. To see what is happening now to our homes makes me so mad.”

There is an easy, safe, answer that would respect the people, culture and Appalachian environment:   Wind farms.

I think this diary provides a few good reasons why we should call, email or write lawmakers to sponsor the Water Protection Act.

As Devilstower says:

If you’ve already contacted your own congressperson, here are a few more you might consider calling today.  Dingell’s been so keen on obeying the auto industry at the cost of the environment, the least he can do is put his name on this bill.  And Russ Carnahan doesn’t have a miner in his district — but he does have the headquarters of three major mining companies.  Make him prove he values ordinary citizens over CEOs.

District Representative DC Office Dist Office
1 Bart Stupak 202-225-4735 231-348-0657
13 Carolyn Kilpatrick 202-225-2261 313-965-9004
15 John Dingell 202-225-4071 313-278-2936
1 Tim Walz 202-225-2472 507-388-2149
7 Collin Peterson 202-225-2165 218-847-5056
8 James Oberstar 202-225-6211 218-727-7474
2 Bennie Thompson 202-225-5976 601-866-9003
4 Gene Taylor 202-225-5772 228-469-9235
3 Russ Carnahan 202-225-2671 314-962-1523
4 Ike Skelton 202-225-2876 816-228-4242
5 Emanuel Cleaver 202-225-4535 816-842-4545

NOTE: A special thanks to Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition where she advocates on issues involving Mountaintop Removal, Coal Slurry and Coal Sludge as well as taking amazing photos and generously answering questions for newbies like me. Flyover courtesy

Photo sources:

Clear-cutting forests: Vivian Stockman

Blasting: iLoveMountains

Cracked Land: Appalachian Voices

Dragline:  Vivian Stockman

Slurry impoundment: Kent Kessinger

Big Sandy River Disaster: Appalachian Voices

Winding Shoals Hollow Disaster: Photos extracted by OVEC from video taken by Bob Gates

Marshfork: Vivian Stockman

Reclamation:  Vivian Stockman



  1. Great Article and thanks for your time on this. should be noted that were all on this not just the companies but every person that overuses any resource, that is ANY resource: energy, wood, water, etc. not to mention people not doing anything about it.

  2. […] Mountain Top Removal, as practiced in Appalachia, is perhaps best described as a warfare on America,… A practice filled with devastating implications, about the only redeeming feature is its short term profit making for those who rate the dollars in their pocket above essentially everything else. Many of those who encounter it end up with disgust about the practice, such as these two guards hired to ‘deal with’ MTR protesters. […]

  3. […] warfare on Appalachia has extended recently to Coal River Mountain, with blasting to destroy (essentially) forever this […]

  4. […] peer-reviewed paper I’ve ever published“) calling for an immediate moratorium on the mountaintop removal war (MTR) on Appalachia.   Acoording to the press release of the article (to appear in the 8 January issue), “The […]

  5. […] the risks of coal waste, there remains a the near utter lack of realization by most Americans of the war on Appalachia called Mountain Top Removal and its devastating […]

  6. […] of course, is referring to the damage in the ongoing War on Appalachia politely called “mountain-top removal” and the “fill” from these operations […]

  7. […] of the Republican Party.  Ask yourself, just how many front-page stories have you ever seen on America’s War on Appalachia in your local […]

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