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Coal mining and mountaintop removal in Appalachia

Updated: Apr 1, 2023




A common misconception about the Appalachian region involves the exploitation of coal deposits. Many people are under the impression that the massive coal industry is carelessly harming the environment to only turn a profit.


The industry is actively working to restore the environment from the damage it has caused in the past, all while trying to keep the lights on and bolster the economy with continual and sustainable use of this limited and vital resource. To fully understand this misconception, the history of the coal industry must be understood.


In the past, the coal mining industry rapidly expanded to its current size due to coal being used for many different purposes. These purposes spanned from uses in common homes to places of industry. Its earliest uses were to provide heating in coal stoves in households across the nation.


As time progressed, coal would soon become critical to lighting homes across the country with the invention of the electric light bulb. Even with the ever-expanding population of America, the use of coal in homes for heating and lighting does not explain the size of the industry.


Demand for coal in homes alone could not create the titian of an industry that coal mining is today. In the 1800s, the coal mining industry rapidly expanded to supply a much larger demand. This demand was America’s growing steel industry.


Coal was mined from vast deposits in the Appalachians and transported north on railroads and American waterways. The destination of this Appalachian coal were centers of the steel industry in the United States such as the blast furnaces of Pittsburg, Pa. While the coal industry was rapidly growing, the damage it was doing to the environment was too.


Coal mining has had a damaging effect on forests, mountains and rivers within Appalachia for years and has a deep history in the country and the region. This is primarily due to unsustainable practices such as mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining at the top of a mountain where coal is removed from the mountain by stripping away the land and covering the top of the seams. Mountaintop removal has occurred in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.


The reason that there has been such an increase in the demand for coal in recent years is due to the increase in oil prices along with many other factors. This is causing the coal industry to increase its production, which, in turn, increases the damage done by practices like mountaintop removal. This is upsetting communities around these removal sites because they are destroying the landscape to exploit the coal industry.


“Coal is back, with a different approach: demolishing mountains instead of drilling into them, a method known as mountaintop coal removal,” said John McQuaid from the Smithsonian Magazine.


It is important to realize that the only way to repair the damage caused by the coal industry is for the industry itself to act. Presently, positive progress to restore regions affected by coal mining is being made. The coal mining industry is working to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly while still supplying this vital resource.


There are benefits to coal mining when we talk about it regarding the environment. One example of this is a broad spectrum: coal-fueled power sources. The industry also provides a lot of job opportunities.


One thing that the industry is doing to help lessen the harm from the removal sites, is planting trees in place of depleted mines as they are completed within a certain area of excavation. The goal of this reforestation is to help boost wildlife and give back where they took the land for their resources.


The consensus on mountaintop removal within the Appalachian is that the coal mining industry is clearing land for mining purposes. This leads to the belief that coal mining is harming the environment, which in turn upsets communities all over the Appalachian region.


Further knowledge has proven that, despite the misconception, the coal industries participating in mountaintop removal are working to help replenish the environment around them. They are planting trees and working to restore the wildlife from these coal mines. 


Above photo provided by TIMES Magazine.

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