November 5, 2014 | 9 Comments

Mountaintop Removal (Various designers)

From the curators: Mountaintop Removal mining (MTR), which evolved in the 1970s out of conventional strip mining techniques, has become the predominant method for extracting coal in North America. This mining process, largely concentrated in the Appalachian Mountains, makes use of thousands of tons of explosives each day to remove the layers of rock and soil above a coal seam within a mountain. MTR drastically changes—or destroys—the surrounding landscape despite the fact that it streamlines more traditional methods of coal extraction. In America, approximately 40% of electricity is generated from burning coal, a process that contributes to the excessive release of greenhouse gases. Concerns over the straining U.S. power grid have added to the tensions between coal companies and environmental agencies. Though MTR provides access to untapped coal used to fuel the country, its severe environmental and social impacts render the practice abominable to many.

When I was a child, my family drove throughout the Northeastern United States for family vacations and field trips. The movie King Kong had just come out—the 1976 version with Jessica Lange—and the death of King Kong had especially upset me. I felt great sadness for the vulnerable beast that was cruelly captured, displayed in a cage, and toppled to his death from the World Trade Center. On these family road trips, the gently sloping Appalachian Mountains appeared often on the horizon. Staring out the window at them, I imagined them as parts of King Kong—his profile, laying in repose, or his elbow. Now, it seems that King Kong has been chopped up into tiny bits.

Satellite images belie the on-the-ground horror of the situation. I feel disconnected, looking down on the transmogrified landscape. Like a ruthless cancer metastasizing over the hills, creeks, and communities, the time-lapsed display defuses the brutality. We are able to document our destruction using billions of dollars of sensitive, sophisticated technology and human know-how. What will we do with this information?

The exploitation of Appalachia has been a 150-year plan: in the late 1800s and early 1900s, land speculators and coal agents acquired massive tracts of land through deceptive contracts known as the “broad-form deed.” Countless Appalachians unwittingly signed away their land and mineral rights for a pittance; some were able to mark only an X for their signature. As railroads expanded, so did coal mining. Horribly dangerous working conditions in the coalmines sparked the American labor movement and some of the first child labor laws.

The broad-form deed came back to haunt Appalachians when surface mining started up in Kentucky in the 1950s; coal agents returned to take their land and access their coal. Industry’s plan to dominate the region and its resources moved forward relentlessly. When coal mining moved to the surface, the protests began. There was no other recourse. Appalachia was a resource colony and people were not preferred. Doris Shepherd, who protested early strip mining in Kentucky, described it thus: “It was just rampant rape-and-run. I don’t know how they could justify what they did…. And a lot of them, as soon as they filled their pocketbooks, they left; they left us to deal with the problems—the ruined land, the polluted air and the water. We’re still dealing with that today.”

Despite good intent to regulate the controversial new process of mining, the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 instead institutionalized the process known as mountaintop removal or valley-fill coal mining. Removal. Removal was the government’s euphemism for Andrew Jackson’s campaign against Native Americans. President Carter stated his disappointment with the severely weakened law, specifically, that the enforcement of SMCRA was remanded to the individual Appalachian states rather than falling under the purview of the Federal Government. Toothless regulatory agencies remain de rigueur in West Virginia, a state captured by coal industry.

The continuum of violence now stretches from the slaughter of thousands of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears to Bob White, West Virginia, where Maria Gunnoe lives on the land her Cherokee ancestors first settled. The mountaintop removal mine that invaded her backyard—and her life—radicalized Gunnoe, an environmentalist who has fought the process tooth and nail. She has endured and sacrificed much to protect her family and her community, helping to lead the fight to end mountaintop removal. Gunnoe’s ancestors followed the creeks, away from murderous troops, to the family home-place, where she still lives today. Looking at these satellite images is all the more appalling and numbing when this history is considered—what have we done to land that had been cherished even in the most straitened of times?

All that has been destroyed. An area the size of Delaware–equal in size to 1.5 million football fields—has been annihilated by mountaintop removal. Thousands of miles of headwater streams have been buried; thousands of mountain communities poisoned, depopulated. A strip miner told me once that mountaintop removal is like gutting a fish. That miner relished his ability to take down a mountain, even, and especially, when all the people around him cried for him to stop. Is there any greater violence against a people than poisoning their water or fouling their air—the most basic components needed to sustain life—and continuing to do so amid great public outcry?

Video filmed by Maria Gunnoe. Courtesy of Bo Webb/Appalachian Health Community Emergency. 2013

Is violence to the Earth any more acceptable than violence to humans?

  1. November 6, 2014, 1:09 pm

    William DePaulo

    Violence against the earth IS violence against people

    Two dozen plus peer-reviwed health studies over the last decade document the encyclopedic adverse health impacts in communities near mountaintop removal coal mines. From increased birth defects, decreased birth weight, diminished educational attainment, to increased cancer, cardiac and pulmonary disease and significantly decreased life expectancy, the verdict is in: Particulate matter released from MTRsites kills. My home state of West Virginia is 50th out of 51 states +DC in median income, and dead last–yeah 50th– in the rank of its educational system. But long before the health effects of MTR were documented West Virginia was number one–first in the country–in deaths per 100K from particulate matter emitted from coal-fired electric plants (which generate more than 90% of the states electric power). Instructive are the names of the states ranking 2 thru 6: VA, PA, KY, OH, IN…..step back from that six-state map…what are you looking at? The footprint of mega-utility American Electric Power, the largest purchaser of coal on the North American land mass. Violence against the earth IS violence against people. Period. Paragraph. Full stop.

  2. November 6, 2014, 7:48 pm

    Elizabeth Scott

    I totally agree with the Bove article. Violence against earth is violence against people. If people can be convinced that it is necessary to blow up their homeland in order to earn a living, how easy would it be for them to blow up their fellow citizens? This practice if removing mountains is abhorrent. I have watched it’s progression in WV now for over13 years. Every time I see the billows of smoke seizing from a mountain, every time I see the hills shorn of their trees in preparation to be dynamited, every time I see the. narrow seams of coal that has been exposed by so much killing and dozing, my heart screams. Yes, this is violence against the planet and it’s people in the name of the one true god worshiped in America, the Almighty dollar.

  3. November 7, 2014, 1:44 am


    I totally agree with you. My grandfather was a coal miner and died of lung cancer. Coal,oil, natural gas extraction devastate the environment and the health of humans laboring to extract it or living near extraction sites. We must end our dependence on fossil fuels.

  4. November 7, 2014, 5:18 pm



    It saddens me that our Nation has become so entitled. Entitled to pollute and destroy its ecosystems. Entitled to take Freedom for granted. Entitled to be ignorant as if it is a badge of honor. Entitled to poison our food systems. Entitled to anything without asking first. And the consequences are rarely dealt or worse, swept under the rug. Your pieces are creating awareness and kudos to do you for campaigning against the injustices that occur right beneath our noses. Kudos for scratching beneath the surface and sharing it with us.

  5. November 7, 2014, 6:04 pm

    Builder Levy

    Thank you for this piece of personal and revealing journalism on MTR in Appalachia, an American tragedy and travesty.

  6. November 7, 2014, 7:23 pm

    Charles T. Bradford

    Hazy Creek

    Hazy Creek

    It’s a personal peeve
    That coal-mining sons of bitches
    Have got a hitch in their nasty britches
    And blocked the road for their wickedness

    Blew down the waterfalls
    Toppled down the very mountains!
    For the love of God, Why have they forbidden
    Access to The Crown of Creation?

    Poisoned the water, poisoned the ground,
    Spread their nastiness all around
    Came in the 1800’s, carpetbaggers from Vermont
    Tricked the old-timers, put them off their land.

    Lured the sons of old to be modern serfs
    Convinced them coal was their only shot
    Convinced them they could never live by thought
    Families and love assured they would be caught

    Spawn of Satan, living out-of-state,
    Acting so meek and mild.
    Nothing hateful would ever leave their mouths, but
    “Run coal so I can have my third villa in France!”
    “Run coal so my brat to Harvard will have entrance!”

  7. November 7, 2014, 7:40 pm

    Laura Antrim Caskey


    It is undeniable that the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining are horrifically irreversible. That the base impetus to blow up our mountains is just how some people see doing business…Money, of course.

    But more than that….what does it say about us as a nation?

    That we do this…That we’re – and it is “we” because we are all complicit in one way – sacrificing our natural heritage to unprecedented degree? These Appalachian forests are the most bio-diverse mixed mesophytic forests in the world – rich, living earth. We tear it down, bury our headwater streams, upon which the Southeast United States depends on for drinking water, and wipe these little towns off the map. We’ve learned recently that 50% of our wildlife is gone, since 1970 – Think of all the habitat destroyed with mountaintop removal – black bear, bobcat, red fox, turkey, quail – And the people, who’ve lived there for generations, whose fathers and grandfathers dug the coal that helped industrialize our nation…

    The science backs up the correlation between the human health costs and breathing the blasting dust that cascades down across the Appalachian hollers below these massive mine sites. The reports say that a pregnant woman living below these mountaintop removal sites has a much greater chance of delivering a baby with serious birth defects that a woman who smokes during pregnancy, but does not live under a MTR site.

    Coal companies and the politicians they put in office do their best to ignore the facts. It is our job as citizens to participate. What kind of people do we want to be?

  8. November 30, 2014, 6:31 pm

    William DePaulo

    One Woman's Brave Fight Against MTR

    “The Place You Love” tells the story of Donna Branham’s courageous fight against the coal industry in an effort, possibly futile, to protect three generations of her family from the destructive impact of mountaintop removal. Acknowledging the insurmountable power of King Coal in Mingo County, Donna protests that “It’s not fair that they can make you pay with your soul.”

  9. February 15, 2016, 8:10 pm


    I think it is time to use any means to stop MTR. ANY MEANS.