Coal Mountaintop Removal Mining in McDowell County, WV

West Virginia is the country’s second largest producer of coal[1]. The relationship between energy and energy production is one that individuals seldom think about. The process and production is rarely understood by those who don’t go out looking for the information. So often the situation becomes one in which, unless the energy production is “in my backyard,” we tend to not worry about the externalities associated with the production of energy. This is especially true for the production of electricity via coal.

MTR West Virginia (Wikimedia N.D.).

Though it is inherently thought that an abundance of resource equates to upward socio-economic mobility, the opposite is true for certain coal mining communities in West Virginia. In McDowell County, an abundance of a resource allowed for a false cosmopolitan view that all problems will be solved, and instead of allowing for a diversification and proper allocation of economic resources, these abundant resources set the county and West Virginia one step forward and three steps back.

McDowell County

The early settlers of McDowell County, WV saw an opportunity to purchase cheap land where they would be able to start their lives[2]. Decades were spent living off the land and it was not until the “arrival of modern coal operation that allowed for [the transformation] of [the] local economy from one of hardscrabble agricultural subsistence to an even more tenuous, crude, and industrial one”[3]. During the 19th century, McDowell County produced more coal that any county in West Virginia[4]. As read in a New York Times article[5], when coal was “king” in that county “everybody worked,” there were movie theatres, more houses, and for the most part it seems as though things were working out for residents of McDowell County.

McDowell County 19th Century
McDowell County 19th Century  (Wikimedia N.D.).
  • Over time, as coal became a vested interest of multinational corporations, so too began their acquisition of land[6].
  • The method by which this was done was “coercively as well as forcibly”[7]. What soon occurred was that corporations gained a tremendous amount of socio-economic capital within this county.
  • Though the community now began to see a growth of businesses and homes, these new community resources did not belong to them, but rather to the coal company.
  • “People were often paid for their underground labor in scripts, which allowed them to buy goods only from the company store”[8] such ownership of land, homes, and businesses  allowed the money to always find its way back into the hands of the coal corporations[9].

As poverty was already a problem during this era because of the concentration of wealth, the decline of coal exacerbated an already existing problem[10]. In attempts to help mitigate poverty within the area:

  • President Kennedy began the Food Stamp Program and amongst its first recipients were the members of McDowell County[11].
  • Soon after came similar programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and free school lunch  that were meant to fight against the “war on poverty”[12].

Though these multifaceted solutions would target the complex problem that coal brought about in McDowell County, the unfortunate situation is that over half a century later the same problems subsist:

  • McDowell County 50 years later has significantly higher levels of poverty, lower per capital income, and median household income compared to the county averages in West Virginia[13].
  • Population levels have drastically changed: during the boom of coal there were about 100,000 residents in McDowell County[14] and now that number stands just around 21,000[15].
  • The community suffers social problems ranging from high illiteracy levels, drug abuse, low levels of employments and social mobility, and incarcerations[16].

West Virginia : A larger Context

As technology has advanced, so has the production of energy. Since much of the low hanging fruit has been picked[17], there has been implementation of a new method of extraction, Mountaintop Removal:

“Under the mountains in these areas lie thin layers of low-sulfur coal, which are extremely valuable and are too narrow to be mined by more traditional methods of deep mining. In order to reach this coal, mining operations must remove the ‘overburden’ (which includes the tops of mountains, forests, etc.) to expose the coal seam below.”[18]

PGE Image 4
MTR Mining (Wikimedia N.D.).

Impacts of MTR involve

  • Sludge by-products
  • Deforestation
  • Health related externalities associated with mountaintop removal[19].

Although environmental degradation is a serious problem, the communities would likely be able to mobilize and act against such actions if they were not being degraded at the same time. In order to understand the degradation of community development it is critical to understand how politics come into play with MTR.

To raise a critical piece of information in order to understand politics behind MTR land:

“[MTR] requires an exemption from the federal reclamation requirement that mine sites be returned to their ‘approximate original contour (AOC). In order to receive this AOC variance, the coal operators must meet certain requirements in their mining permit applications… these requirements center on the proposed post-mining land… which must be deemed ‘an equal or better economic or public use’… compared to its pre-mined use”[20]

  • Here is where a significant portion of the opposition lies, within legal understanding of MTR. Much of the mining in West Virginia, which would seem as though they should be categorized as MTR, technically fall under the legal category of large scale surface mining and thus the accountability that would be held for MTR site restoration is minimized[21].

The problem that has been found in the current economy of West Virginia is similar to that of McDowell County in the 1950s: the existence of an undiversified economy[22].Coal is still a significant contributor to West Virginia’s economy because no other industry has replaced it[23]. Between property taxes, severance taxes, and gross state taxes, there is a significant amount of total state income coming from coal[24]. With this in mind, it is imperative that West Virginia take advantage of this decline in coal economy in order to diversify their economy and begin to move away from coal.

Environmental Justice in West Virginia

The resource curse is the theory that states: with an abundance of resources, countries tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer renewable resources[25].  McDowell County’s situation stemmed from resource curse symptoms: an inadequate distribution of wealth and over-dependency of a resource[26]. This lead to the creation of the illusion of a booming economy, an economy that was so tied together with coal that it was almost impossible to distinguish the two. A similar situation is occurring in West Virginia as a whole, though on a larger scale and with more advanced technology. As West Virginia continues to undermine the current state of coal and its transition in the economy’s current state, the story of McDowell County will likely be seen as the story of West Virginia.

Much of the explanation for the resource curse is directly tied to capitalism’s treadmill of production[27]. One aspect that is quite clear within these coal mining communities is the cutback of surplus value from the community and the environment. Mountaintop Removal has allowed for the acceleration of resource production which has mechanized the new labor work force. And with a decrease in jobs that historically allowed community development and socio-economic mobility, we now see communities as they are able to watch as their environment is destroyed.


There needs to be support, not only continued from federal governments but as well as local governments to support social growth. This form of social support can be best in the economic and political sectors. As the economy requires change, there is great potential in the land post MTR that lies within renewable energies, especially wind power[28]. Not only has this movement to renewable allows for a new job market, but a more renewable market that will allow for job creation and possible land reforestation[29]. Similarly, there can be a change in the politics, especially those that currently allow MTR (or large scale surface mining) to be returned to less than that of its original contour. Outside of renewable energies, some of these politics have the potential to allow for a fraction of  the profits to be reinvested, or be better allocated in a manner in which allows West Virginia to have a fighting chance as coal begins to decline and as they begin to move away from this coal dependency.

PGE Image 3
Wind Turbines (Wikimedia N.D.).

To view the entire paper, click here.


[1] U.S Energy Information Administration. (2012). Rankings: Total Energy Consumed per Capita:

[2] Clabough, C. (2012). Inhabiting contemporary southern and appalachian literature :Region and place in the twenty-first century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

[3] Clabough, C. (2012)

[4] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20). 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back. The New York Times.  Retrieved from

[5] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[6] Clabough, C. (2012)

[7] Clabough, C. (2012)

[8] Clabough, C. (2012)

[9] Bell, S. E., & York, R. (2010). Community economic identity: The coal industry and ideology construction in west virginia. Rural Sociology, 75(1), 111-143.

[10] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[11] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[12] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[13] U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). State and County Quickfacts. U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts :

[14] Clabough, C. (2012)

[15] U.S. Census Bureau. (2014).

[16] Clabough, C. (2012) & Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[17] Strobo, R. A. (2012). The shape of appalachia to come: Coal in a transitional economy. Duke Forum for Law & Social Change (DFLSC), 4, 91-114.

[18] Bozzi, L. (2012). Beyond Mountaintop Removal: Pathways for Change in the Appalachian coalfields. Duke Forum for Law & Social Change (DFLSC), 4, 115 – 140.

[19] Strobo, R. A. (2012)

[20] Bozzi, L. (2012)

[21] Bozzi, L. (2012)

[22] Gabriel, Trip. (2014, April 20)

[23] Bell, S. E. (2009). “There Ain’t no bond in town like there used to be”: The destruction of social capital in the west virginia coalfields. Sociological Forum, 24(3), 631-657.

[24] Richardson, L. J., Cleetus, R., Clemmer, S., & Deyette, J. (2014). Economic impacts on west virginia from projected future coal production and implications for policymakers. Environmental Research Letters, 9(2), 024006.

[25] Robbins, P., Hintz, J., & Moore, S. A. (2010). Environment and society :A critical introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.

[26] Clabough, C. (2012)

[27] Robbins, P., Hintz, J., & Moore, S. A. (2010)

[28] Bozzi, L. (2012)

[29] Richardson, L. J., Cleetus, R., Clemmer, S., & Deyette, J. (2014)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s