Mountaintop Removal: A Dirty History Repeats Itself

The monster of mountaintop removal* is once again rearing its ugly head. The aptly named Arch Coal may be about to blow the top off of historic Blair Mountain – the 1921 site of the largest civil uprising after the Civil War, a battle between coal miners and coal operators. Needless to say, there are a lot of people upset.

Communities in Appalachia have been fighting the destructive process of mountaintop removal (MTR) for years, asking Congress to ban the practice and the Environmental Protection Agency to deny coal companies blasting permits. Numerous acts of civil disobedience, including tree sits, have been used to prevent blasting in Appalachian sites.

But local and national politics haven’t gone much of anywhere. The U.S. gets five percent of its coal energy from MTR coal, and there’s plenty of economic and political incentive to continue mining. The coal industry donates huge amounts of money to politics, and the governments in the Appalachian region haven’t been particularly friendly to those opposing MTR.

People are asking if this will once again be a case of industry trumping public interest, and I’ve been trying to figure out what I think. Will history repeat itself? The original Battle of Blair Mountain ended in a decisive victory for the coal companies, although a large proportion the workers eventually unionized some fifteen years later during the New Deal era.

My hope is that this new battle at Blair will reveal the horrors perpetuated on the people of Appalachia through the destruction of their air quality, water supply, and land. In the fight against MTR, Blair Mountain is well known. Located in Logan County, West Virginia, the mountain and the battle have been memorialized in fiction and folk music. In 2009, the National Register placed the battlefield on its list of historic places, but objections by landowners reversed the decision. And, the protest March on Blair Mountain this past summer garnered a decent amount of media attention.

In the end, it all comes down to one fact. MTR is destroying communities, and it’s time that we moved on from coal, the dirtiest source of energy we’ve found.

You can read more about the situation at Blair Mountain here:

Check out this NPR interview:

A CNN article about MTR and the mountain’s history:

And if you want to see what the moonscapes left after MTR look like, check out this:

* Mountaintop removal (MTR) is exactly what it sounds like. Explosives are used to blow up large tracts of land in order to make it easier to reach the coal seams underneath. The toxic waste is then frequently dumped in streams and valleys, poisoning the water. The explosions also send toxins into the air.


Caroline Selle is an environmental activist convinced that small changes have big impacts and has been known to engage in minor battles over the thermostat. When she’s not griping about the lack of public transportation in southern Maryland, Caroline is writing about the human faces of environmental issues, lobbying in D.C., or studying the impacts of media rhetoric on public opinion. She is currently working on a book about the activism around the Keystone XL pipeline. Follow her on Twitter.