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Mountaintop removal is a form of mining which involves blasting away the top of a mountain to get at the valuable minerals inside, particularly coal. It is most associated with the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, although this mining technique is in use all over the world. As you can imagine, mountaintop removal results in rather dramatic changes to the topography of the landscape, and it has met with considerable opposition from people with very diverse concerns, ranging from economists to environmental activists.
You may hear mountaintop removal called “mountaintop mining/valley fill” (MTM/VF), in reference to the techniques used in the mining process. Activists characterize it as “strip mining on steroids,” arguing that the practice of mountaintop removal is extremely harmful to the environment, and suggesting a ban on the practice. Supporters of mountaintop removal point out that it is an extremely cheap and efficient method for accessing minerals, and with rising concerns about oil around the world, a cheap source of coal for electricity generation could be very beneficial.
The first step in mountaintop removal is clearing the mountain of trees and topsoil. The trees are typically clearcut so that they can be sold for timber, with the mountain being set on fire in some cases to burn the brush and scrap to the ground. Next, the topsoil is removed so that it can be used in environmental reclamation, either on the site after mining is complete, or on an off-site location. Then, large amounts of explosives are used to literally blow the top of the mountain off, exposing useful material inside.
The explosives generate huge amounts of waste material, which is pushed around the perimeter of the mountain, in a practice known as “valley fill,” because it fills the valleys around the mountain. It also creates a great deal of dust, which can be hazardous to human and animal health. After the seam of coal or other desirable material in the mountain is exposed, a dragline pulls it out for processing, typically running it through water filtration and creating a toxic slurry which must be stored and eventually cleaned up.
Since the 1970s, when mountaintop removal first became popular with mining companies, people have objected to it on a number of grounds. People who are concerned about mining communities argue that mountaintop removal destroys the economy of the community, as only a small crew is needed, and these communities are often forced to move by the valley fill and slurry ponds. A number of spills of these slurries have been reported, resulting in catastrophic flooding, which is a concern for environmental activists. Environmentalists also worry about the destruction of animal habitat and the reformation of regional topography, both of which can cause environmental damage. People also object to mountaintop removal on aesthetic grounds, because the results are crude and very ugly.