Environmental Impact Assessment: Mountaintop Removal in West Virginia

Mountaintop Removal in Letcher County, Kentucky, USA

One of the most under-researched and under-publicized areas of environmental health in the United States is the systematic depletion, degradation, and destruction of the Appalachian Mountain Range since the early 1970s through “mountaintop removal” — a form of rapid surface mining that involves the removal of the summit or ridge of a mountain top using explosives and extractives. This approach is considerably cheaper and faster than conventional mining methods, meaning that its economic benefits to the corporation most often outweigh the clear environmental and social impacts it has on surrounding communities.

Before entering into a conversation on the adverse economic, environmental, and social effects of this practice across the Appalachian region and consequently 13 American States, it may be worthwhile to review some of the key facts about the destructive scope of this practice since its inception:

– ž502 peaks have been removed (1)
1.2 million acres of land has been affected (2)
– ž3.14 million tons of carbon dioxide sequestration is destroyed annually (3)
2,000 total miles of streams have been lost (4)
– ž3 million pounds of dynamite detonated daily in West Virginia (5)
ž750 million cubic yards of waste is produced per mine (twice the amount of materials to build the Great Wall of China) (6)



In this post, I will use an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to illustrate the countless negative impacts of this practice on the people, the planet, and the profits of this vulnerable mountain region. By using the specific case of Spruce Mine No. 1 in West Virginia, it is my hope that this post will serve as an example of the broader issues across Appalachia while also providing the space to suggest viable alternatives for the both the degraded land and the energy system more broadly. As this assessment will demonstrate, a Strategic Environmental Assessment of Spruce Mine No. 1 should have been done long before it and dozens of other mines were licensed to operate.

Given the widespread and systemic persistence of mountaintop removal (despite its credible ongoing criticisms), it is necessary to approach this issue firstly from an EIA approach. Once addressing the impacts in this way, I will extend the analysis to a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to propose some ideas for the strategic conversion and re-appropriation of destroyed mountain ranges to ensure as much conservation and protection as possible, in addition to broader considerations for the root causes at work such as energy supply, consumer demand, political alliances, and others. It is important to note that despite these and any other impact assessment and mitigation measures, there is no doubt that considerable and irreversible damage has been done to this diverse biological, cultural, and historic heart of America.


Spruce Mine No. 1 is an existing surface coal mining operation (or mountaintop removal site) in Logan County, West Virginia, which was originally permitted in 1998 by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Agency (WDEPA) to Hobet Mining Inc., a subsidiary of Arch Coal, Inc. (7). At the time, the site was the largest mountaintop removal mine permit in history — spanning 3,113 acres and creating five valley fills that would permanently fill six miles of streams and directly impact more than ten miles of streams (8). Inadequate or downplayed assessment must have been conducted at this stage, as the perceived effects even then were worrisome and extensive. As the mine continued to pollute the air and the water, the EPA continually tried to legislate against them but its power was limited by continual Congressional battles about the extent of its authority. However, when the Spruce Mine requested an expansion in 2002, an extensive EPA-veto process began, which sparked the flip-flopping of local, regional, and national governments and had resulted in a decade-long battle over permitting Spruce Mine to expand and continue operation, particularly due to waste dumping, water quality, and air quality. As you will see, this story has a happy ending – for now.


With this in mind, I will ignore the typical “Scoping” and “Alternatives” phase of the EIA process (because they weren’t adequately conducted in the first place) and proceed directly to the present Impacts, Mitigation, and Monitoring efforts within the case of Spruce Mine No.1:

IMPACTS (of industry in region)

– replaces manpower with machinery (10,000 jobs lost in the 1990s alone) (9)
– negatively affects land for other industry usage and growth
– requires significant healthcare and other state investments because of secondary impacts (i.e. water and air pollution)
– permanent and irreversible damage to mountains, wildlife, and surrounding waterways
– loss of biodiversity
– toxification of water
– contamination of the air with sulfur
– 50% higher cancer rates in mountaintop removal areas than other areas of Appalachia (10)
– 42% of children born with birth defects in mountaintop removal areas (11)
– $75 billion USD in annual health expenditures directly related to coal operations pollution in Appalachia per year (12)


For a visual example of the health impacts of this practice on the region, see the map below, which demonstrates the cumulative number of deaths from Chronic Cardiovascular Diseases, Lung Cancer, Respiratory Disease, and Cancer. As you will see, these rates are much higher than the country average and are directly intensified around the proximity of the mountaintop removal mines:


MITIGATION (of Spruce Mine No. 1)

Ideal | If an early Environmental or Strategic Impact Assessment had been conducted and adhered to before the start of mountaintop removal (and the Spruce Mine in particular), the excavation may have been permitted if and ONLY IF the mines adequately managed the air and water pollution associated with its activities, handled its own waste management programs, and provided conversion strategies for the excavated land to return it to a reasonable condition that would promote the former biodiversity of the area. Given the intensity of the abusive environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, the mitigation needs would likely have outweighed the economic benefits and de-incentivized corporations from investing in such practices.

Reality | The EPA only recently has been empowered last month to conduct and act on the provisions of the Clean Water Act against the Spruce Mine. The Clean Water Act is legislation which was passed over 40 years ago with bi-partisan support and has wavered because of disagreements over the EPA’s jurisdiction and authority (13). Despite this advancement, there are countless impacts that went without important mitigation measures over the past decade that simply cannot be reclaimed.

MONITORING (of Spruce Mine No. 1)

Ideal | Assuming that an adequate Environmental or Strategic Impact Assessment would have been conducted before the Spruce Mine construction and excavation, it is likely that the mine would have operated under strict monitoring from the EPA based on its jurisdiction over the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Acts, thereby reducing harmful impacts that would affect human health. Despite these potential successes in air and water quality, the EPA would have still had difficulties in preserving the biodiversity of the area, as their power was and is limited to Acts and not recommendations — meaning that if no formalized act exists on biodiversity, the EPA would have still struggled with preserving this element of the environmental impact. In an ideal scenario, civil society groups and local government would step in to urge corporations to curb the amount of cleared space needed to perform the extraction, ideally preserving maximum biodiversity.

Reality | Given the oscillating judicial and legislative decisions around this case, it is evident that not only do local, regional, and national governing bodies disagree over various stages, phases, and impacts of the project throughout its lifetime — but it demonstrates a critical gap in the legislative power of the EPA. This has been a historically challenging issue for the Environmental Protection Agency, which struggles under the weight of expansive responsibility and limited monitoring capabilities.


The EPA’s authority over the Clean Water Act in respect to Spruce Mine No. 1 was finally affirmed by the D.C. Circuit Court on April 23rd, 2013 (14). As one attorney working on the case described:

[The] decision upholds essential protection for all Americans granted by the Clean Water Act. Communities in Appalachia can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that EPA always has the final say to stop devastating permits for mountaintop removal mining. Now, we just need EPA to take action to protect more communities and mountain streams before they are gone for good. (15)


However, the industry’s backers in Congress are already threatening to take away this authority, particularly based on the timing of the EPA’s veto, which came after the Army Corps approval of the permit. Despite this attempted loophole in the timing of the veto, the court ruled that:

[This section of the Clean Water Act] imposes no temporal limit on the [EPA] Administrator’s authority to withdraw the Corps’s specification but instead expressly empowers him to prohibit, restrict or withdraw the specification“whenever” he makes a determination that the statutory “unacceptable adverse effect” will result. (16)


This will be a fascinating case to follow in the coming months, considering Spruce Mine No. 1 has been one of the most threatening and tumultuous cases of mountaintop mining in history. Now that the EPA has finally secured the authority to shut down the mine, the people and environment of the surrounding region can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet even if the mine is closed down,  irreversible damage has been afflicted to the region. Even if waterways are cleared and air recovers over time, the land itself will never return to its natural forestation or biodiversity. So what can be done about the situation? It may be a belated but critical time to employ Strategic Impact Assessment to determine next steps for this destroyed region.


Through a brief use of a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) in determining the Scoping of the problem and the Alternatives to the landuse in this region, there are some interesting proposals emerging about the possibilities for this afflicted area.

Firstly, a Strategic Environment Assessment of the land would have flagged a series of broader strategic considerations related to the motives for mountaintop removal, such as:

– consumer demand for cheap energy
– market differentiation of rapid extraction for companies
– profit-driven design and implementation
– political alliances and support (with corporations)
– vulnerable local community with pre-existing socioeconomic challenges
– EPA limitations to regulation
– researchers and advocates are unconnected and can lack coherent focus

With these broader strategic issues in mind, some institutional solutions could include: stringent fines and fees for the corporation, broader economic models for carbon emissions regulation such as cap and trade or carbon tax, the strengthening of EPA legislation and regulation, and government transparency on political-corporate alliances. More sustainable solutions could include: the cohesion of researchers and advocates through targeted alliances and conferences and capacity-building in local communities on engaging with government, supporting transparency initiatives at all levels of government, and conducting accurate needs assessments in the community.

Before concluding this post, I would like to highlight one specific strategy that an emerging mass of environmental advocates are suggesting that is particularly convincing: converting the “dead land” into space for solar energy. At present, less than 10% of excavated sites in Appalachia have been reverted to forests, so there is a lot of room for improvement in this arena (17). The graphic below demonstrates the enormous potential for repurposing the same land to create as much or more energy for the energy market through the installation of solar panels:



As the image above suggests, the possibility for creating similar clean energy potential with smaller or similar size exists, but it would require significant financial investment ($180 billion). However, such an investment would provide the amount of jobs lost (10,000) in West Virginia, avoid significant environmental and social impacts, and provide renewable and reliable energy to the region. Like all renewable technologies, the biggest hurdle is the initial investment, which is why traditional energy systems like mountaintop mining have been so successful thus far. Although this case underscores the complexity of financing the energy demand, it does prove that renewables are capable of producing equal energy with much lower impacts. This may not be the best strategy for the reversion of this land, but it is an interesting proposal that has emerged in the debate and surely considers some of the broader strategic influences at work in this case.


In the end, a smart assessment and mitigation strategy absolutely must produce a healthier future for this vulnerable community that has struggled under the weight of intensive and abusive mining practices for nearly 50 years. The suffering must end and the system must be changed. It is my hope that these recent advances in EPA regulation and mounting support for strategic re-appropriation bring a new era of prosperity to this region, while also bringing justice to the corporations who have long violated the economic, social, and environmental health of Appalachia’s 2,400 km of land and 23 million inhabitants.



(1) Solar vs. Coal. Land Art Generator Initiative. <<http://landartgenerator.org/blagi/archives/1700>>

(2) “Ecological Impacts of Mountaintop Removal.” Appalachian Voices. <<http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/ecology/>>

(3) Perks, Rob. “Appalachian Heartbreak: Time to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining”. NRDC Report. <<http://www.nrdc.org/land/appalachian/files/appalachian.pdf>>

(4-5) Solar vs. Coal. Land Art Generator Initiative. <<http://landartgenerator.org/blagi/archives/1700>>

(6) Perks, Rob. “Appalachian Heartbreak: Time to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining”. NRDC Report. <<http://www.nrdc.org/land/appalachian/files/appalachian.pdf>>

(7-8) Hartz, L. and McIlmoil, R. (10 September 2010). Mountaintop Removal Case Study: Spruce No. 1 Surface Mine. Downstream Strategies. <<http://ran.org/sites/default/files/spruce_case_study_vf.pdf>>

(9) McFerrin. “An Odd Partnership: UMW, Coal Association Arm in Arm”. West Virginia Gazette. 21 May 2002. <<http://www.wvgazette.com/static/series/mining/mcferrin0521.html>>

(10-12) iLoveMountains.org. “Fast Facts”. The Human Cost of Coal. <<http://ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost>>

(13) Thorp, Lynn. “Let The EPA Do Its Job.” We All Live Downstream Blog. Clean Water Action. 9 May 2013.  <<http://blog.cleanwateraction.org/2013/05/09/let-epa-do-its-job/>>

(14) Goad, Jessica. “In Huge Win on Mountaintop Removal with Big Implications, Court Upholds EPA Authority to Protect Clean Water”. ThinkProgress Blog. 24 April 2013. <<http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/04/24/1916861/in-huge-win-on-mountaintop-removal-with-big-implications-court-upholds-epa-authority-to-protect-clean-water/>>

(15) Cheuse, Emma. “Court Upholds EPA’s Power to Protect Communities from Mountaintop Removal Mining”. EarthJustice. 23 April 2013. <<http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2013/court-upholds-epa-s-power-to-protect-communities-from-mountaintop-removal-mining>>

(16) Mingo Logan Coal Company v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, No. 12-5150 United States Court of Appeals. Decided 23 April 2013. <<http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/DBEEA1719A916CDC85257B56005246C4/$file/12-5150-1432105.pdf>>

(17) Perks, Rob. “Mountaintop Removal: FAIL”. Huffington Post. 25 August 2009. <<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-perks/mountaintop-removal-fail_b_268718.html>>

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