14 Oct 2009: e360 Video

Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy
of Mountaintop Removal Mining

During the last two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has destroyed or severely damaged more than a million acres of forest and buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams. Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a video report produced by Yale Environment 360 in collaboration with MediaStorm, focuses on the environmental and social impacts of this practice and examines the long-term effects on the region’s forests and waterways.

Back to the article >>


COMMENTS So vivid and stark! A true picture of mountaintop removal.
Thank you Chad

Posted by Debbie on 14 Oct 2009

A very thorough clip on pros and cons of Mountaintop mining. It is better than a hundred-page book.
Posted by Feng Wang on 14 Oct 2009

It's great scientists are beginning to figure out that blowing up the oldest, most diverse mountain chain in the U.S. and shoving the coal-extracted remnants into pristine streams for the past 20 years might not be a smart thing for climate change, for the locals who for generations have drank that water, for other species, ad nauseum.

But I still recall my partner coming home from her adviser's meeting on her proposed PhD path in environmental science at a Big 10 university and being forced into tears as she expressed her desire to delve into ecosystem effects of MTR and being told it was a "lost cause" that it "didn't matter."

It's sad that today's heroes have to be GED-less locals in Southern W. Virginia and E. Ky., and easily-convinced college students, and frazzled enviro activists who are being thrown into local jails for blocking coal-haul roads, hanging banners and attending public hearings....a war you hear nothing about in mainstream media.

I recall Al Gore's call to action at last year's keynote address of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for scientists to come out of their labs and offices and become activists on this issue. Gore even showed pictures of MTR explosions. Then James Hansen, who was in the audience, got arrested in southern West Virginia a few months ago, but where are the rest you?

I mean, here is John McQuaid's accompanying story: "But scientists are now beginning to understand that the most lasting damage may be caused by the massive amounts of mining debris dumped into valley streams."

Give me a break: "beginning to understand"....."may be caused"....anyone with a second grade education could walk up a Central Appalachian stream 20 years ago, see native trout, crawdads of unbelievable color, salamanders, darters - not even contemplating the invertebrate populations - and then come back in a week and not be able to walk up the same stream because its filled with an 50-foot high "stream" of spoil rock. I think that second grader could safely declare that they FULLY understand through common sense that there COULD be lasting damage.

Government and public academia (knowledge?), have always played an important role in providing that balance of power with the profit-driven motives of private industry. In the case of the coal industry, government and public academia have been, and remain, cowards.
Posted by Steve Chaplin on 15 Oct 2009

This is a very powerful video, masterfully done. I plan to share it with many people, including some politicians!
Posted by Kate Gould on 15 Oct 2009

I am shocked at Chris Hamilton. First he actually said that mountaintop mining doesn't cause flooding - heavy rains cause flooding. Wow, is that ever tongue in cheek. Later he says with a smirk that every mountain in WV is for sale if someone wants to buy it to preserve it. Either he thinks conservation-minded people are ignorant, or he just doesn't care.
Posted by Sam on 17 Oct 2009

Great video. Thanks for making it. MTR is a very important subject and it is time for scientists to do as Gore said and come out of their labs and take action.

Posted by Doug Alder on 17 Oct 2009

My family is from West Virginia. There are mountains made almost completely of coal, and it's clean burning anthracite, not the heavy sulfur coal found out west.

Not one in a hundred mountains in W. VA are coal. But the ones that are provide the electricity you folks use every day.

Let the first person step forward who doesn't use any coal-produced electricity. Try doing without electricity for a month. I double dog dare ya. Washboards and river rocks still work fine for washing clothes. And for the men, try bailing hay for even six hours without electricity or fossil fuels. You will be BEGGING for mercy!

If a mountain of coal is so precious to y'all, take up a collection and buy it. That's what a stand-up American does.

Sniveling about how other people earn a living shows how really pathetic and brainwashed people have become.
Posted by Themistocles on 18 Oct 2009

Excellent video. I pray Kentuckians will be mindful of this issue as they choose our next Senator.
Posted by Curtis Morrison on 19 Oct 2009

I am pro-life and pro-mountain. The results of this practice speak for themselves. And you don't need a GED to see it, hear it, and feel it.

How can you blow away millions of years of nature in two seconds and say with a straight face that a few seeds and a bulldozer can replace what you have willfully destroyed? The rock peaks, the vegetation, the animals, and now the humans have been and are being decimated.

Why not harness the wind above those peaks? Why not try to get the coal in a less destructive way?
Posted by Rebecca M. Brooks on 21 Oct 2009

Very powerful and inspiring. Thank you, Chad.
Posted by xiaomei on 23 Oct 2009

Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, leading Democrats in Congress, represent these citizens. This is another case in point of Democrats who say they are for the people and beholding to the radical environmental left, but they are letting this happen because of their own self interest. Put in nuclear power like Europe and this destruction will end and industry and jobs can thrive again in W. V. and it will be good for the whole USA as well. Send a clear message to these 2 powerful senators today.
Posted by dawn holmes on 26 Oct 2009

Great stuff! Thanks!

Urge your senators to join in the "Hold" placed on the nomination of Joseph Pizarchik for Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement!

Ask them to please vote "No" on the Pizarchik nomination.

For more info please see:

Joseph Pizarchik: The Wrong Choice
Citizens raise concerns about President Obama's nomination to head the Federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE).


Mystery Senator Blocks Obama Pick to Head Key Mining Office


Irreparable Damage: Senate Must Block OSM Nominee Pizarchik Today

Citizens Coal Council
Posted by NoPizarchik@OSM.gov on 28 Oct 2009

One thing homeowners can easily do to help decrease the demand for coal is switch to green power. It only takes a few mouse clicks and maybe a phone call. Here is a green power locator for the US: http://www.epa.gov/grnpower/pubs/gplocator.htm
Posted by JM on 30 Oct 2009

Amazing documentairy, does this make you think about nuclear power? Since the American economie needs far more power then a windmill makes. And the equivalent of solar power would mean deforestation of a very big area.

People denying the impact of mountain top mining are foolish, there's no way the removal of a complete forest and mountain is not having effects on the quality of water and habitat.

This whole thing sounds like the smoking / cancer research that was done in the '60s. Nobody said it was causing cancer since there were no reports to back the theory up. We'll just protest and wait what happens. But don't forget, this same thing is happening in China, India, Brasil etc.

Posted by Pen Tablet on 11 Nov 2009

Informative to the point that I researched what Coal is used for even though I know. It is disheartening to see our beautiful Country destroyed when other options are available that are less destructive and employment producing.

Good job to all those who made this short documentary.
Posted by Mrs P on 18 Nov 2009

A masterfully made documentary. Thank you. It clearly points out the frightening split in American society, dare I say hatred toward one another. Obviously both sides of the mountain-top removal issue have to try to understand the other. It's the basic lesson in marriage counseling. And when you fail to respect the other's point of view, the marriage breaks down, it's war, everyone loses.

Our goal should be long-term sustainability--of both environment and economy. We do need energy but not "cheap energy" so that we continue to waste it frivolously. The users of energy should pay the true costs and those costs include spoiled water reserves, polluted air when we burn it, and dying lakes when it acidifies in the clouds and rain.

We need energy for survival not for luxuries. We need it for growing food, heating homes and national security.

The mining industry has come a long way in its ability to reclaim stripped land. But I would prefer to see patches of clearcut forest on the hillsides rather than summits blown into rubble scars. At least with a cover of soil there remains hope that life will return.

Posted by Phil Norton on 18 Nov 2009

Thank you for this movie!

More on water: an eastern Kentucky fishpond destroyed by mining:

Posted by Alexa Mills on 19 Nov 2009

Causing destruction to the environment is not the capitalist way, and capitalism can never be the scapegoat for this catastrophe.

The scarce resources of a society must be allocated in an efficient and effective way that satisfies the percent generation needs without putting in danger the future generation needs, and not the other way around.

Posted by Abshir on 04 Dec 2009

Coal is not truly an energy resource. It is a mined material resource. Since the definition of efficiency is energy out divided by energy in, efficiency of coal (or petroleum fluids) as an energy resource is undefined, or perhaps just above zero. For example, the photosynthetic efficiency that was at the start of the process of coal (typically about a third of a billion years ago) was less than one percent.

Our "economy" is based on energy fraud that is epic, and sometimes criminal. There are no reasons to continue this destruction of American families, landscapes, wildlife, climate and future.

Posted by James Newberry on 13 Dec 2009

I went to Delbarton West Virginia this past summer on a church mission trip, and I was able to witness firsthand how the people of West Virginia live and interact with people from the outside. 23.2% of the families there live below the poverty line, the median family income is $27,917, a little over one half of the median family income for the entire United States. I saw the flood damage, and I saw the living conditions. These people live in a poverty stricken region, when driving into town you see one giant house surrounded by shacks. My experience there opened my eyes to the problems in West Virginia. This documentary really hits home on the causes of the problems in the area and for Chris Hamilton to make outrageous claims like, “Plainly and simply put mining does not cause flooding, severe rainfall causes flooding” shows his extreme arrogance towards the situation in West Virginia. This needs to end, if you believe that mountaintop removal mining is a just way to obtain energy after watching this you are as arrogant as Chris Hamilton from the West Virginia Coal Association.

To clarify my reference to Delbarton, it is in the heart of coal country in West Virginia.

Also reading some other comments, I believe that this has long been a one sided issue dominated by the coal companies. The truth about the issue has finally been revealed and to not see the truth behind the claims proved by this documentary is arrogant.

I believe that solar, wind, hydroelectric, and clean nuclear energy are legitimate substitutions to our fossil fuel dependent society.

Posted by Justin on 05 Jan 2010

Awesome video! This viedo says it better than a 100 page book!

I didn't realise that the scale of damage on the environment is on this enormous scale!

Posted by Abhishek on 18 Jan 2010

At the President's meeting with the Republican Caucus in Baltimore last week Republican Congresswoman Capito from West Virginia addressed President Obama and spoke of the vast energy resources of West Virginia in coal and gas, her concerns with the high unemployment of her constituents and with the USEPA. She didn't say specifically what her concern was with the agency but it probably had to do with holding up permits for Mountaintop Removal.

The President responded by saying he was in support of oil and gas exploration and nuclear energy and of course clean coal and cited the Clean Coal ads which featured the President saying during his campaign that he supported clean coal.

I found the President's remarks disingenuous since he didn't say anything about the USEPA holding off or reviewing permit applications for Mountaintop Removal applications. The agency is doing so because this practice of extracting coal is anything but "clean" as clearly shown in your Video and clearly violates the Clean Water Act.

I hope you can send your video to the White House along with Dr. Palmer's study of the environmental impacts of Mountaintop Removal and ask the President whether this is what he means by "clean coal".

Posted by Larry Grossman on 03 Feb 2010

Its a real-life travesty. Its time we open our eyes to the destruction of our only home. Brilliant Documentary.

Posted by on 10 Feb 2010

I thought the video was very interesting. I did not know much about mountain top removal and to actually see it (in a video of course) made me realize the devastation that is occurring. I have done some reports on coal in class and have looked at clean coal technologies. After seeing this video I think I am against clean coal.

Posted by Marissa on 03 Mar 2010

Incredibly incisive video! Of course mountaintop removal mining has it benefits but the minerals (largely coal) extracted only benefit a tiny minority of corporate interests.

But this is essentially at the expense of local communities who have to make do with an altered landscape epitomized by mountains with summits, gullies left by the heavy trucks that ferry the coal away, loss of mountain-dwelling biodiversity and pollution of the environment and water caused by the burning of coal. The latter come with a litany of needless health risks.

And because these risks cannot be sufficiently mitigated, I think the practice should be outlawed.

Posted by Rhonda on 01 Apr 2010

Thank you for helping spread the message. This is a very emotional and complicated issue and y0u have done well with it. I hope you plan to do follow up pieces on this issue. Some points to consider.

Take a hard look at the history of jobs provided by mining in Appalachia. The mining camps and communities that had company stores where you could buy necessary goods only with company scrip (tokens or coins issued by the company in lieu of real money).

Look at the black lung deaths and how the mining companies fought miners for years over that issue. Look at the ghost towns where the coal has been mined out and see how sustainable mining was for those communities.

Send a FOIA to WVDHHR and examine cancer cluster deaths and correlate those with mining locations using GIS layering.

Look closely at the "soil" the companies "rebuild the mountains" with. It is not soil at all. It is pulverized rock. Soil takes hundreds or thousands of years of organic deposition and decomposition to make.

Compare the numbers of miners employed and the number of tons of coal produced BEFORE MTR to the same statistics AFTER MTR began. Are there less miners (jobs) producing more coal?

I live in Charleston WV and yes I use MTR produced electricity. I have no choice. Having used "green energy locator sites" and even calling my local power provider trying to find sustainably produced electricity I discovered it is not available from AEP (Appalachian Electric Power). Drive through ANY mining community and look at the flora beside the road and at the sides of the houses and see how clean coal is.

As for the "rain causes flooding statement." My 10 year old can disprove that. Take a plate with a sponge on top, pour water on it and observe the sponge absorb some of the water slowing and reducing what runs off of the plate. Remove the sponge and do it again with the same quantity of water. Observe the difference in "run off". When we strip the top of a mountain we are removing the sponge.

What we have here is two groups of people on opposite sides of an issue that threatens to take away what is important to them if the other side wins. On one side, jobs and a standard of living. On the other, health, love of the environment, and their standard of living. How do we resolve this? I do not know.

Coal will run out, we (the following generations) will have to live with the results of mining. Where will the people of Appalachia be then? No money, no coal, no jobs, and no clean water. We are writing checks we have no intention of paying... and our children and grandchildren won't be able to.

Thank you again for this documentary. Please keep up the good work. Please do what the mining companies are doing...keep digging deeper.

Posted by Thomas Blankenship on 03 Apr 2010

Thank you for making this movie. It is VERY frustrating as West Virginian to get other people to feel this way. I really appreciate your effort to make strides in the right direction!! Thanks again.

Posted by David on 20 Aug 2010

I have always been aware of MTR and it's devestation in our state, of W.V. It is the beginning to a HORRIFFIC END. The mountains are our namesake. The people and animals are being run out of their own homes. The U.S government isn't doing much of anything to STOP the ruination of our state. Our most abundant natural resource is being ruined and cannot be replaced.

Posted by tori on 03 Dec 2010

In response to, Themistocles on 18 Oct 2009, That is a powerful justification for MTR and I agree that we have become too dependent on technologies. I can only hope we begin and accelerate our transition away from this life choking energies or else we will all find ourselves without and battleing each other for whats left.

Posted by Malachai on 22 Jan 2011

Again, however belatedly, Stop It NOW! The Federal Water Pollution Control Act is amended to read as follows:


SEC. 101 [33 U.S.C. 1251] Declaration of Goals and Policy

(a) The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters. In order to achieve this objective it is hereby declared that, consistent with the provisions of this Act--

(1) it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.

Posted by Vic Anderson on 09 Feb 2011

In many countries is the same big dilemma. How to provide energy (as cheap as possible) but in the same time to preserve the environment.
This task is not easy to achieve.

Destroying mountains with explosive like that hurts the nature itself.

Posted by Cazare Moneasa on 11 Feb 2011

A very thorough clip on pros and cons of Mountaintop mining. It is better than a hundred-page book.

Posted by dwizz on 22 Apr 2011

I grew up in the coal mining region of western Pennsylvania, and I can attest to the serious damage done by the coal industry. Not only are there barren regions left from mountaintop removal mining, but there are numerous other forms of lasting damage to the environment. Also, the region's roadways are dominated by massive coal trucks that drive at ungodly speeds. Many people die each year from speeding coal trucks. This industry has no regard for the environment, and even less regard for human life.

Posted by Antonio del Drago on 24 Apr 2011

Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.