Coal Mining and Mountaintop Removal


Relevant Vocabulary:
  • · Appalachia – a mountainous region of the eastern United States with a cultural and
  • industrial history including coal mining and logging; Appalachia stretches from New
  • York to Mississippi, with its “heartland” in the central and Southern states.
  • · Asthma – a chronic inflammation of the lungs; it can be caused by environmental
  • and genetic factors.
  • · Carbon dioxide (CO2) – a greenhouse gas emitted mainly by the burning of fossil
  • fuels; the main gas contributing to climate change.
  • · Coal – a fossil fuel (formed from the compressed remains of organisms living
  • millions of years ago) found as a hard, black substance between rock layers of the
  • Earth.
  • · Coal Dust – the fine, powdered form of coal, which is created when coal is crushed
  • or exploded. Coal dust travels miles from coal mining sites, causing low air quality
  • and respiratory problems in neighboring communities.
  • · Coal-Fired Power Generation – a centuries-old process for producing electricity,
  • involving the burning of harvested coal.
  • · Coal Seam – a horizontal deposit of coal within a mountain.
  • · Environmental Justice – “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of
  • people of all races, cultures, incomes and educational levels with respect to the
  • development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” –
  • Environmental Protection Agency.2
  • · Extraction – the act of removing an object from a certain place; often used in the
  • context of natural resources, which cannot be put back.
  • · Fossil Fuel – a type of energy source formed from the compressed remains of
  • organisms living millions of years ago that is harvested from natural resources; it is
  • by nature non-renewable and emits CO2 when energy is produced.
  • · Mechanization – the introduction of machinery and other technology into an
  • industry to replace manual labor.
  • · Mountaintop Removal (or Strip Mining) – MTR is a type of surface mining in
  • which an area is deforested and rock and soil at the summit or summit ridge of the
  • mountain is removed with explosive material to provide access to buried coal.
  • · Overburden – the soil, rock, and other material that lies above a specific geologic
  • feature or an area of economic or scientific interest.
  • · Public Health – “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and
  • promoting physical and mental well-being through the organized efforts and
  • informed choices of society, public and private organizations, communities and
  • individuals.” - C. E. A. Winslow3
  • · Reclamation – the process of restoring an area to a more natural state, after
  • pollution, deforestation, or other destruction has made it unusable or toxic. In
  • Mountaintop Removal, reclamation refers to placing the exploded rock and soil
  • (valley spill) formerly dumped into valleys and streams back onto the top of the
  • mountain
  • · Renewable Energy – energy generated from resources that are naturally
  • replenished, such as wind, sunlight (solar), geothermal heat, tides, and rain.
  • · Subsidy – a form of financial assistance made to a specific business or general
  • economic sector, usually given by the government to prevent an industry from
  • declining or becoming financially unviable.
  • · Valley fill – the soil, rock and other materials that are dumped into the valleys,
  • rivers, streams, and other areas surrounding a Mountaintop Removal site; also
  • known as “Holler fill.”
Background Information:
Mountaintop Removal has received attention in the last decade as a large-scale, systemic vironmental justice issue for the people of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and other parts of Appalachia. Whereas underground mining poses significant dangers and health risks to the workers in the mines, Mountaintop Removal affects entire communities surrounding the mine sites. In Mountaintop Removal, an entire mountain summit is deforested and explosive material is used to remove rock and soil at the summit or summit ridge of the mountain to provide access to coal seams. The removed material either falls into or is dumped into neighboring valleys and streams.
Health Risks: Post-explosion, coal dust is sent up into the air and travels for miles, blanketing neighboring communities in a fine powder. Rates of asthma, other pulmonary diseases, and cancer skyrocket in communities within a ten mile radius of these mine sites. Environmental Risks: The topsoil removed from the summit of the mountain cannot be replaced. Even if expensive and time-intensive restoration efforts are implemented it will take centuries for the tops of the mountains to regain the biodiversity they once had. The streams and rivers polluted with coal and sediment from these explosions are degraded in quality, and sometimes even blocked off and dried up. People and wildlife downstream that rely on this water are poisoned by coal and other pollutants and become sick or die. 
Economic Impact: Mountaintop Removal is much less labor-intensive than underground mining, and employs less than half the workforce as underground mining (often making it more profitable for the mining companies). Although historically, the Appalachian economy is linked to coal mining and other labor-intensive industries such as logging, much of Appalachia’s present economy is based around tourism. Appalachian tourism is largely nature-based, and the industry is dependent on the beauty of the area’s mountains and streams. Mountaintop Removal’s destruction of the land and water destroys the local tourism industry. Finally, the health and environmental dangers of this practice make Appalachia much less desirable to live in, reducing real estate values by more than 75% in some areas.
Mountaintop Removal is described as “controversial” by numerous news sources and politicians, because although the negative environmental and health issues associated with it are widely recognized, Mountaintop Removal is deemed the most efficient, cost-effective way of extracting coal from mountains, especially those whose lower coal seams have already been extracted. Currently, coal supplies Americans with more than half of their electricity. The United States’ current dependence on coal as an energy source continues to make coal extraction a profitable industry, despite its obvious environmental, health and social consequences.
Historically, the highly labor-intensive underground mining method was the most common way for acquiring coal. Before WWII, entire towns - indeed, entire regions - would be employed through the coal industry. Although underground mining was incredibly dangerous for mine workers who were often not treated well by the companies that employed them, Appalachian coal miners developed a strong sense of pride in this difficult job. A rich historical tradition surrounds coal mining in Appalachia. Before the 1930s, the Appalachian Mountains provided more than two-thirds of America’s coal.8 Mountaintop Removal became a popular practice after WWII, as demand for coal increased and the U.S. developed explosive and mechanical technology that enabled the coal industry to access thinner coal seams closer to the tops of mountains. In Mountaintop Removal, almost all of the labor is completed with explosives and large machinery, and far fewer coal miners are employed – presently, only 2% of the Appalachian workforce.
Why continue to rely on coal when its extraction is so detrimental to the surrounding environment, economy and human health? That is, in and of itself, a controversial issue with many implications for large-scale changes in energy production, regional economies and jobs, and implications for climate change and sustainability. Are the economic benefits to the industry worth the environmental costs? What about when health care costs and other economic factors are accounted for? Can the United States reduce its dependence on coal as an energy source? Appalachians themselves are locked in conflict: is mining and processing coal vital to the Appalachian economy and sense of identity, or is the coal industry's destruction of land, water and air ruining their region?
Warm-Up: Map Exercise and Place Orientation
1. Ask students if they have heard of Appalachia. What is it? Where is it?
2. Pass out Reproducible #1 – Boundaries of Appalachia. Is your school in or near Appalachia? If not, have students ever been to Appalachia, or any of the states that contain part of Appalachia? What was the reason for their trip? What was their experience?
3. Looking at the first map on Reproducible #1, have students estimate how far their school is from Appalachia. If the school is in Appalachia, have students estimate how far they would have to travel to be outside of Appalachia.
4. Can students guess why this region would be differentiated from areas outside of Appalachia? Is there anything unique about the land, the people, or the history within its boundaries that places outside of Appalachia do not have? Answers will vary, but may include the mountains, Appalachian music, or a history of coal mining. Also note that the strong geographical boundaries (mountains and valleys) have kept this area distinct from much of the surrounding regions.
Activity One: Introduction to Mountaintop Removal and Environmental Justice
1. Play a short video (4:23), or other related videos on this page, as an introduction to Mountaintop Removal:
2. Pass out Reproducible #2 – The Anatomy of a Coal Mountain and Mining Techniques for students’ reference.
3. Ensure student comprehension by asking the following questions, discussing the video and Reproducible #2:
  • a. Can students recap what they learned about the process of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) from the video and looking at the diagram? The summit of a mountain is deforested, explosive materials are inserted into the rock layer, and the top of the mountain is literally removed by being blown off. Coal is then mined from the exposed coal seam. The removed rock and soil are then discarded into the neighboring valleys and streams. Sometimes a portion of the material is placed back on top of the mountain.
  • b. What are some other ways of accessing coal that students know of? Have they heard of different types of mining? Why might one type be chosen over another? There are many types of traditional, underground coal mining. Tunnels are built to grant access to deep coal seams, well below the summit of the mountain. The coal is removed through the tunnels by mule, elevator shafts, small trains, and other means. In general, underground coal mining is much more dangerous for the mine workers inside the mine shaft, but has much less impact on the environment or surrounding communities.
  • c. Based on comments from the people in the video or students’ own inferences, how is MTR affecting the local landscape, culture, and lifestyle of the people living near these mountains? The land that is blasted away is plugging up streams, causing erosion, redirecting water supply and causing torrential flooding. The toxins from coal mining end up in the region’s air, water, soil and bodies, affecting people’s and animals’ health. They are also losing value on their properties and income from declining numbers of visiting hikers, naturalists and other tourists. Removing the mountains is removing the landscape the Appalachians know and love and changing the identity of the region.
4. Write the EPA’s definition of environmental justice on the board: “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” – Environmental Protection Agency.11 Are any students familiar with the concept? Have they heard of events or situations that others have referred to as environmental justice issues? Do they know anyone who works for environmental justice?
5. Using the definition on the board, combined with students’ input, ask students to rephrase the definition in their own words.
6. Play the video clip (or a related video) once again, Asking students to jot down their thoughts on how MTR is an environmental justice issues. After the clip is finished, ask students to share their thoughts. Jot the themes they have brainstormed on the board.
Activity Two: Understanding the Issues
1. Assign students to five teams to focus their research on one of the perspectives that dominate the discussion of Mountaintop Removal and coal mining generally.
  • a. The Science of Coal and Basics of Mining
  • b. The Environment
  • c. Public and Community Health
  • d. Economics
  • e. Culture and Identity
2. In the next class, students will give group presentations of five minutes each. Students will have the remainder of the class period to research, delegate tasks for homework, and begin formulating a presentation. They will be given a half hour of the next class period to finish organizing their presentations. Pass out Reproducible #3 – Directed Questions for Presentation. This Reproducible gives each team guiding questions that they must touch on. (Reproducible #4 – Directed Questions
for Presentation – ANSWER KEY has short answers for the teachers’ reference.) 
3. After students have had sufficient time to construct their presentations, in class or as homework, allow class time for student presentations. As each team is presenting, other students should try to answer the questions on Reproducible #5 – Questions on the Issue to show what they have learned. After the presentations have been completed, go over this worksheet together as a class to make sure students have been able to answer each question based on their research and their peers’
presentations. Use Reproducible #6 – Questions on the Issue – ANSWER KEY as a guide.
Activity Three: Implications and Energy Conservation
1. If needed, tie together the presentations, engaging students in a review of Mountaintop Removal. Reviewing the important issues from each group’s presentation.
2. As a class or in small groups, visit to find out if your local power company receives energy from coal companies that engage in Mountaintop Removal.
3. What was the outcome? (Note: it is likely that the local power company does purchase at least some of your region’s power from this source).
4. Even if your school is not in or near Appalachia, explain to students that although this process is occurring elsewhere, people across the country are involved in Mountaintop Removal simply by using coal-powered electricity. Although it varies by region, almost half of American energy comes from coal. Students’ electricity use is directly related to this practice, regardless of whether they support MTR or not. Every time students turn on a light or charge their phone, they are implicated
indirectly in this process. Having the lights on in this classroom for just one day requires at least twenty pounds of coal.
5. Have students brainstorm ways of conserving electric energy. What are some ways in which we can reduce our electricity use to minimize how much we rely on processes like Mountaintop Removal?
6. Write down the students energy conservation tips on the board. Answers will vary, but could include: hanging clothes up to dry, instead of using a dryer; turning off the lights when you leave a room; unplugging appliances that are not being used; using efficient lightbulbs and appliances, etc…
Wrap-Up: What We Learned
With the remaining class time, go over these questions with the class, asking students to volunteer their ideas:
1. What and where is Appalachia? a mountainous region of the eastern United States with a history of coal mining and logging; Appalachia stretches from New York to Mississippi, with its “heartland” in the central and Southern states.
2. How is coal mining important to this region? Historically, coal has been an important energy source in the United States, and much of this resource is found in Appalachia. The people of the area have long been tied to coal mining through location and labor.
3. What is Mountaintop Removal and what are some of its costs and benefits? What are its impacts on human and environmental health? Why is it used? MTR is a type of surface mining in which an area is deforested and rock and soil at the summit or summit ridge of the mountain is removed with explosive material to provide access to buried coal. It is detrimental to the entire mountain, valley, and watershed. In addition, its effects on air and water have major implications for human and ecosystem health. It is used because it is a cheap and effective method of reaching soil, currently a valuable energy resource.
4. Why is Mountaintop Removal considered to be an environmental justice issue? The rivers, streams, and groundwater are polluted by MTR. This means that peoples’ drinking water is affected, and they can get sick. The pollution of the water also means that wildlife reliant on the water sources is affected. Fish either die or become contaminated – fishing is no longer viable in MTR-affected areas. The deforestation of the mountains leads to severe flooding, because the trees and vegetation that used to be on the mountain no longer soak up that water. This can wipe out communities, especially poorer communities, whose homes, roads, and other structures are less likely to be flood-resistant. Post-explosion, coal dust is sent up into the air and travels for miles, blanketing neighboring communities in a fine powder. Rates of asthma, other pulmonary diseases, and cancer skyrocket in communities within a ten mile radius of these mine sites. MTR affects Appalachian employment. First, this process employs fewer people than traditional mining, in an area that is reliant on the coal industry for employment. Second, the damage that is done to the landscape and rivers hurts the natural tourism industry. MTR pits large, profit-driven companies against small towns, local residents and the environment. This is often the case with environmental justice issues, and those communities who are unaware of the issues or are least likely or able to speak up and defend themselves are the ones who deal with the largest consequences in the end. Mountaintop Removal is an environmental justice issue because it damages the environment in a way that disproportionately affects low-income communities. Poorer Appalachians are subjected to breathing in coal dust, drinking polluted water, and having elevated rates of disease and cancer because of MTR.
1. Based on your findings about your school and region’s energy sources, have the class research different energy sources and the costs and benefits of each. Are there energy sources that are more or less detrimental to human and environmental health than coal obtained by Mountaintop Removal. Why are some more widely used than others? How could healthier forms of energy be made more available?
2. Besides reducing their electricity usage, students can also play a role in finding and using new sources of energy. Have a class brainstorm about what they could do to change their region’s energy sources and/or introduce healthier energy forms to their school power company. Have them research if renewable energy is available in their area and how to it can be purchased. Have students start a petition, write a letter, write a newspaper article, or otherwise raise awareness or advocacy for renewable energy that does not depend on fossil fuels or resource extraction.
3. Have students examine the possibility of requesting from the utility provider that the school be powered by alternative or renewable energy sources. If there is extra cost for this service, brainstorm ways to raise money or get sponsored to help with the difference.
4. Mountaintop Removal is a highly controversial subject, and often, the information the coal industry gives diverges widely from the information given by organizations dedicated to stopping the practice. Find a couple of articles/interviews/news clips with contrasting viewpoints and facts. Have students speculate about why the information they are receiving is contradictory. Why do some parties emphasize certain facts or pieces of information while eliminating or obscuring others? Whose
argument is most compelling?
This lesson introduced students to the Appalachian region and the type of coal mining called Mountaintop Removal (MTR). Students explored MTR’s connection to environmental issues, economic issues, and public health. Students conducted research, worked in groups, and delivered presentations to the class. Finally, students learned how their own energy usage contributes to this problem and came up with ways to reduce their usage of electricity.