Mountaintop Removal

“If you’re going to talk about clean coal, you have to talk about it from the inception of coal mining. So often now it’s about the burning of coal; nobody thinks about clean coal until it arrives at the power plant, and then you’ve got to figure out how to make it clean so it doesn’t destroy the atmosphere. The fact is, the true cost of coal has never been paid by the end user. My clients, the ones I’ve seen face-to-face in eastern Kentucky, have often borne the real cost of mining coal, which is the impact on their community, the impact on their lives, on their water sources, on their roads.”

-Joe Childers, Environmental Lawyer in Kentucky

About Mountaintop Removal

Mountaintop removal is any method of surface coal mining that removes a mountaintop or ridgeline. Methods of mountaintop removal coal mining include: cross-ridge mining, box-cut method mining, steep slope mining, area mining or mountaintop mining. It is a form of extracting coal that uses heavy explosives to remove hundreds of vertical feet of a mountain to access thin seams of coal underneath. This “overburden” is then dumped directly into adjacent valleys, burying headwater streams.

Mountaintop removal has a devastating impact on the economy, ecology, and communities of Appalachia. To date, over 500 mountains have been leveled, and nearly 2,000 miles of precious Appalachian headwater streams have been buried and polluted by mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal follows this process:

  • Blasting – Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 600 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives. Every week, the explosive equivalent of 1 Hiroshima bomb is detonated in Appalachia.
  • Digging – Coal and debris are removed using enormous earth-moving machinery known as draglines, which stand 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars in its bucket. These machines can cost up to $100 million, but are favored by coal companies because they displace the need for hundreds of jobs.
  • Dumping Waste – The debris called “overburden” or “spoil,” is dumped into nearby valleys. These “valley fills” have buried and polluted nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams. In 2002, the Bush Administration changed the definition of “fill material” in the Clean Water Act to include toxic mining waste, which allowed coal companies to legally create valley fills.
  • Processing – Coal must be washed and treated before it is shipped to power plants for burning. This processing creates coal slurry or sludge, a mix of water, coal dust and clay containing toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium. The coal sludge is often contained in open impoundments, sometimes built with mining debris, making them very unstable.
  • Reclamation – While reclamation efforts such as re-vegetation are required by federal law, coal companies often receive waivers from state agencies with the idea that economic development will occur on the land. In actuality, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, and less than three percent of mountaintop removal sites are used for economic development. It may take up to hundreds of years for a forest to reestablish itself on the mined site.

Mountaintop removal takes place primarily in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwest Virginia, and into east central Tennessee.


574,000 acres

293 mountains


78,000 acres

6 mountains


156,000 acres

67 mountains

West Virginia

352,000 acres

135 mountains


1,160,000 acres

501 mountains

Information above provided by

Why is Mountaintop Removal an Issue of Faith?

When mountains are demolished for coal mining, they are gone forever. They lose their topsoil and forest, animal habitat and ability to filter water, and become uninhabitable places for humans and animals. Mountaintop removal is a permanent desecration of the gift of creation by a benevolent and gracious Creator.  

Mountaintop removal also destructively pollutes the streams and valleys where people have lived for centuries in Appalachia. It destroys their culture, their way of making a living, and their family structures. It occurs in remote places where there is very little self-determining political organization and is a colonization and exploitation of the land by outside interests. If it were a profitable enterprise for the people of Appalachia, then they would at least benefit economically. However, the opposite is true as the Appalachian counties are consistently among the economically poorest in the United States.

Mountaintop removal is a choice and not an inevitable circumstance. Power can be generated in ways that are sustainable and beneficial to the health of the mountains, the eco-systems, and the people who live there. As demonstrated by the people of the Coal River Valley, the mountains can sustain wind farms that lead to power generation, local jobs, and a sustainable eco-system. People of faith make choices to live in harmony with God’s creation or not. Creation is groaning with the scabs of mountaintop removal.

What You Can Do

  • Write, call, or e-mail your US Senator or Congressperson and tell them to support legislation that ends mountaintop removal. Tell them that this is a moral issue and that people of faith demand a halt to the desecration of God’s creation. Tell them that there are alternatives to coal mining through mountaintop removal and that the people of Appalachia have offered clear alternatives for energy generation.
  • Support one of the groups working to ban mountaintop removal with your financial resources. Outside financial help is greatly appreciated because of the historic lack of financial resources in Appalachia.
  • Do your own part to cut down on your energy use. Understand that the electricity you are using may very likely come from the destruction of a mountain in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, or Tennessee.

Links and Resources