Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining




Warm-up: Monitoring Your Energy Pre-Assignment– For the Night Before

Send students home with Reproducible #1 - At Home: Monitoring Your Energy Use! Pre-Assignment that will prompt thought about energy usage. In short, the worksheet will:

  1. Ask students to look for all the things in their house that are plugged in
  2. Ask students if all those things need to be plugged in
  3. Ask students to think about other ways their family uses energy
  4. Ask students where they think all that energy comes from

Activity One: The Coal Mine Calamity

  1. Play‘Searching for Coal’
  2. Push all desks, chairs, and other furniture to the corners of the room
  3. Have students take off their shoes and pile them high in the middle of the room, shaped like a mountain.
  4. Somewhere in the middle of the pile, hide ten bandanas of different colors. The shoes symbolize the mountain, four of the bandanas (black) symbolize coal, two (red) symbolize someone in the nearby town getting a respiratory illness, two (blue) symbolize the water supply being contaminated with toxic chemicals, and two (green) symbolize the surrounding farmland being destroyed.
  5. Blindfold one student, and tell him/her that s/he is a coal miner. S/he has to find a ‘ribbon of coal’ in the mountain of shoes, while trying not to destroy the mountain in the process. This will be, more or less, impossible.
  6. Steer him/her toward the mountain of shoes and let him/her dig through the pile (trying not to wreck it) until s/he pulls out a bandana.
  7. Discuss what the student found (it might not be coal).
  8. Americans don’t stop needing energy! Blindfold a new student and have them ‘dig for coal.’
  9. For different options that don’t involve dirty shoes, see Appendix - Alternatives to Using Shoes.
  10. Discuss the effects of coal mining:
  11. What did the ‘mountain’ look like at the end of the activity?
  12. Even though the miners were cautious, the pile was still destroyed. Given that most states have few mining laws, what would the mountain look like if the miners had not been cautious?
  13. What if there was a nearby town or river next to the mountain? What would happen to these sites after the mountain was destroyed?
  14. Discuss and/or calculatethe amount of coal used in the U.S. each year (Note: Section ‘b’ below contains more advanced concepts to be done in place of or as an extension to the discussions in Section ‘a’, or it can be skipped entirely depending on the students’ abilities and the timeframe of the class).
  15. Discusshow nearly half of the energy used in every American household comes from coal.
  16. On average, each American household uses almost 1,800 pounds of coal per year. Pass around an object that weighs about 1 pound, and talk about how much 1,800 pounds would be.
  17. Next, talk about the number of people in each American household (average of 2.61). If two or three people live in each house, think how many pounds of coal are being used by just one person per year (about 688 pounds). How old are your students? How many years have they been using that much energy?
  18. Also, have students ponder the difference between individual energy usage and household energy usage. For example, it uses the same amount of energy to heat a house whether one person lives there or eight. Also, think about the energy used by individuals outside of the home (ex. transportation, offices and factories, production of materials, etc.)
  19. Extend these concepts by having each student think of his/her neighborhood, subdivision, town or city, and then imagine how many houses and people there are in neighborhoods, towns and cities all around the United States. That’s a lot of households and people using a lot of coal!
  20. Have studentscalculate the raw numbers and compare their results with the following statistics:
  21. The average American household consumes 11,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year.[1] If 49% of that is from coal, how many kilowatt-hours of coal does each household use per year? (Answer: 5,390 kilowatt-hours per household per year)
  22. If a pound of coal produces around 3 kilowatt hours of energy[2], how many pounds of coal does the average household use in a year? (Answer: 1,796.777, or approximately 1,797 pounds of coal per household per year from coal)
  23. There are 2.61 people on average in each U.S. household[3] - how many kilowatt hours of coal does each person burn through? (Answer: 2065.134, or approximately 2,065 kilowatt hours of coal per person)
  24. If a pound of coal produces around 3 kilowatt hours of energy[4], how many pounds of coal does the average person use in a year? (Answer: 688.378, or approximately 688 pounds of coal per person)
  25. If each kilowatt-hour of coal used produces 1.9 pounds of carbon emissions. How many pounds of CO2 does your coal addiction release each year? (Answer: 3,923.7546, or approximately 3,924 pounds of CO2 per person per year)
  26. There are 301,139,947 people in the U.S.[5] How many tons of coal does the U.S. need to provide energy for these houses in one year? (Answer: 207,298,114,436 pounds of coal, or 103,649,057.218 tons – there are 2,000 pounds in 1 ton – and 39,712,282.459 tons per household). Remember, this doesn’t include factories or office buildings!
  27. Have students discuss why energy usage statistics can vary widely depending on how they are calculated. For example, calculating by household does not account for energy used outside the home, or for the number of individuals per household. Similarly, calculations per individual usually do not account for energy used in communal spaces or infrastructure.
  28. Relate the concepts discussed above to the consequences for the earth.
  29. In total, the U.S. uses 2,257,600,000,000 lbs of coal per year[6] - that’s 1,128.800 million tons.
  30. Present a picture of Kayford Mountain after being mined for coal (see Reproducible #2 - Kayford Mountain Photo). It is estimated to contain 52 million tons of coal.[7] How many mountains do we need to destroy every year to keep up with how much energy the U.S. needs? (Answer: 21.708, or the equivalent of about 22 Kayford Mountains need to be destroyed to meet U.S. coal needs each year)
  31. Imagine if one of these 22 mountains were near your home!
  32. Discussthe natural impacts of coal mining and use:
  33. Environmental impacts
  34. Surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation, destroys the genetic soil profile, displaces or destroys wildlife and habitat, degrades air quality, alters current land uses, and to some extent permanently changes the general topography of the area mined.[8] This often results in a scarred landscape with no scenic value, though rehabilitation can mitigate some of these concerns.
  35. Mine tailing dumps produce acid mine drainage which can seep into waterways and aquifers, with consequences on ecological and human health.
  36. The collapse of underground mine tunnels can cause subsidence (downward shifting or caving) of land surfaces.
  37. During actual mining operations, a potent greenhouse gas, methane, may be released into the air.
  38. By the movement, storage, and redistribution of soil, the community of microorganisms and nutrient cycling processes can be disrupted.
  39. In addition to the production of coal, there are also significant environmental issues associated with its use, including air pollution, global warming and acid rain.
  40. Health effects
  41. Asthma is on the rise in towns near blasting zones.  Contaminated water, along with structural dangers to homes, have caused property values to plummet and have forced many living for generations on family plots of land to leave.
  42. The EPA estimates that nearly 70% of the wells near mountaintop-removal sites on the Appalachian Plateau test high for iron and manganese water concentrations.
  43. After it is burned, coal’s emissions and particle pollution greatly reduce air quality, contributing to respiratory illness and poor health.


Activity Two:Turn It Up

WatchThe Gorilla in the Greenhouse film, “Turn It Up” on Earth Day TV at


Activity Three:How many planets would we need?

  1. Direct students to the Earth Day Network ecological foot print calculator at
  2. Have students take the online quiz, and then write on the white board or chalk board their name and how many planets we would need to support their lifestyle.
  3. Averagethe class results from the quiz and discuss.
  4. Discusssustainability, and whether or not the class’ way of life is sustainable. 


Wrap Up:Fix the Problem!

  1. Get on the internet at and type in the zip code of your school. The website will tell you how you contribute to mountaintop removal. This might be a mine or coal power plant in your area, or if you invest in a bank that invests in coal.
  2. Provide success storiesof cities, states, and countries that are fighting for renewable energy:
  3. Governor Sebeliusof Kansas[9] - for the first time ever, a government agency rejected the construction of a huge coal plant on the grounds that carbon dioxide is a pollutant regulated under the Clean Air Act.
  4. Sierra Clubwins ruling against the EPA[10]
  5. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) ruled that the EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit the carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants that cause global warming. The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must address their carbon dioxide emissions.
  6. The Sierra Club achieved this ruling by going before the Environmental Appeals Board in May of 2008 to request that the air permit for Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s proposed waste coal-fired power plant be overturned because it failed to require any controls on carbon dioxide pollution.
  7. Maria Gunnoe[11]
  8. After living in a town that had been destroyed by a local mountain top removal coal mine, Maria took her story to the public to raise awareness about how much harm coal mining can really do.
  9. Maria faced intense social pressure from her neighbors to stop her campaign, deemed bad for the local coal economy.
  10. Maria lobbied and organized her community until the EPA filed a suit against Massey Energy Company. In what has become the largest Clean Water Act settlement to date, the company agreed to a $20 million settlement with the EPA to resolve thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act for routinely polluting waterways in Kentucky and West Virginia with coal slurry and wastewater.
  11. Have students discussvarious ways in which they can reduce the amount of energy used in their homes.  Make sure they touch on:
  12. Turning off lights when they aren’t in use
  13. Setting the thermostat lower
  14. Unplugging computers, TVs, cable boxes, and other “energy vampire” appliances when not in use
  15. Using fewer materials
  16. Using reusable items so energy isn’t wasted in production

Extension:  You Can Make a Difference

Have students choose between three creative tasks:

  1. Design a posterto post around the school, showing one energy-saving tip to reduce energy at home and at school. Find ideas at
  2. Write a letterto the local energy company, asking them to use more renewable energy and less coal energy.
  3. Write an Action Plan for your own house to reduce energy usage. These must include specific actions, time frames, and assignments of who is responsible for each task.


Additional Activities:


A. Switch Your Energy Provider!

Have students research the possibility of buying alternative energy! Their families can buy solar panels or residential wind turbines on their own, or choose to switch energy providers to one that provides an option for choosing renewable energy, such as Pepco:


B. Coal Mining Education Week

To raise awareness, have classrooms compete to see who can save the most energy. There will be points assigned for every action:

  • 3 points for every full recycling bin
  • 5 points for generating no trash each week
  • 3 points for every hour of using only ½ the lights in the classroom
  • 6 points for every hour of having no lights on in the classroom
  • 2 points for every time the computer is unplugged overnight
  • 1 point for every 5 students who bring their lunches to school in a reusable lunch bag
  • 1 point for every degree below 69 per hour that the thermostat is turned down





Most students don’t make the connection between switching on a light and destroying the top of a mountain. By the end of this lesson, that link should be clear in their minds. The students will have assessed all the harmful environmental and health impacts of mining for coal, and participated in a hands-on activity that makes that association even more direct. After learning all of coal’s negative attributes, students will be trained in all the positive ways in which they can help the situation, and will hopefully be left with a feeling of motivation and empowerment.