Published: March 2006

Mining the Summits

Appalachian Strip Mining

When Mountains Move

The quest for Appalachian coal has led to mountaintop removal, a process that's been called strip mining on steroids.

By John G. Mitchell
Photograph by Melissa Farlow

Coal brought people to marfork hollow in the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia. And it was coal, or rather a different way of mining it, that finally drove the people away. The last to leave was Judy Bonds.

A coal miner's daughter whose roots here go back nine generations, Bonds packed up her family and fled when she could no longer tolerate the blasting that rattled her windows, the coal soot that she suspected was clotting her grandson's lungs, and the blackwater spills that bellied-up fish in a nearby stream. Retreating to the town of Rock Creek, a few miles downstream, Bonds joined Coal River Mountain Watch, a citizens group determined to oppose surface-mining abuses.

In the years since Bonds moved, coal companies have turned to an even more aggressive mining process known as mountaintop removal. After clear-cutting a peak's forest, miners shatter its rock with high explosives. Then they scoop up the rubble in giant draglines and dump the overburden, as they call it, into a conveniently located hollow, or valley. The method was first tested in Kentucky and West Virginia in the late 1970s and has since spread to parts of Tennessee and Virginia.

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