Coal River Mountaintop Removal, WV

For more than a century the livelihood of Coal River Valley (CRV) has derived from extraction of natural resources; past: timber, present: coal[3]. Similar to other communities in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky, CRV began extracting coal through traditional belowground pit mines[4].

Figure 2: Google Earth satellite image of Coal River Valley. Greyish/light areas depict sites a heavy MTR.

Currently the production of coal is integral to maintaining the level of consumption that America’s residential and industrial sectors are accustomed to[1]. Incidentally, coal mining happens to be one of the most controversial energy sources due to high GHG emissions and hazardous extraction techniques[1].

Mountaintop Removal (MTR): an above ground mining technique utilized to access coal seams within geologic stratigraphy[2].

Figure 1: Graph of U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source in 2012. The US is generating 37% of it’s 4,3054 billion kilowatt hours of electricity through coal.

Unsustainable mountaintop removal practices harm the community’s environment, economy, and marginalized demographics particularly vulnerable to MTR injustices.

History   Surface mining technology was developed in the 1970s and was adopted rapidly to fulfill high demand for coal in a growing consumerist society[1],[3]. MTR requires no miners. A characteristic irresistible to industrialists due to a decrease in revenue reciprocated as wages and less wage fixation by intervening unions[3].

The Marginalized   Ex-miners were suddenly without work. Moreover, previously blue-collar husbands and fathers were out of a job. These families became severely subjected to high levels of poverty, marginalized by their low socioeconomic status[5]. Today, 28% of residents live below the poverty line in CRV; the national average hovers at 12-16%[6]. Low income families therefore may not have the economic means to 1) move and find work elsewhere or 2) devote the money or time to acquire skills in another field[3]. Women are unable to assist bearing the economic strain due to severe job discrimination in a male-dominated unskilled manual labor infrastructure[7]Personal Accounts from residents of CRV display a strong emotional connection to the community’s roots in their geographic location[7].

“I’m not going to be run out, I’m not going to be run over, I’m not going out without a fight” — CRV resident Patty Sebok on her battle against coal trucks[7].

Oppressed, low-income families are especially susceptible to environmental injustices through the ecological disasters directly cause by MTR[2].

Ecological Affliction

Above CRV 1989; Below CRV 2013

The image above depicts the destruction of Appalachian mountain peaks cropped off 800-1000 ft[7],[3]. The magnitude and scale of MTR has directly introduced toxic hazards to Coal River Valley[1].

  • Air pollution: from both explosive residue used for MTR and the burning of extracted coal[1].
  • Toxic waste: due to large MTR industry’s poor waste management[5].
  • Land pollution: occurs after removal when loose mountaintop matter invades underlying valley’s ecosystems[1]. Stress occurs due to the incompatible contact of small, regional variation in biomes[5]. Woody species that thrived at high elevation soils have now been wiped out because soils displaced by MTR can no longer support their growth[5].
  • Water pollution: most malevolent toxin to both ecosystem health and human health in CRV[5]. After MTR occurs, mountain peaks are dumped into surrounding river valleys, runoff then carries mountaintop minerals and industry chemicals into local water supply[5].
  • Environmental disasters have direct correlation to health impacts
    • life expectancy decreases 0.5-1 years from US average of increase 1.5 years.
    • above average birth defects: 2.75% in CRV, 1.44% in counties where no coal mining is taking place
    • above average statistics for deaths from cancer: >205 out of 100,000 in Coal River Valley, 165 out of 100,000 for national average.[6]


The Coal River community came into the nation’s spotlight around 2012 when Coal River Mountain was one of the last remaining peaks in the extensive West Virginian portion of the Appalachians[3]. More than 500 mountains in the Appalachians have been blasted apart and dumped in surrounding valleys[4]. The direct association of environmental justice and mountaintop removal causes many of the same negative externalities wherever these techniques are practiced. Other regions and communities in southern West Virginia, along with northeast Kentucky, are reproducing similar pollutants and similar negative impacts [1],[4].

Birth defect rate in both WV and Kentucky removal sites

Similarities suggest broader political, economic and energy usage trends that outline natural resource extraction and justice at a community-scale.

  • State power structures are designed to diminish the sociopolitical voice of low-income families. Families cannot invest in the protection of their community; and therefore are easily exploited[4].
  • Economically, coal is an incredibly viable American-produced commodity. Due to U.S. relative abundance of coal, revenue may be gained by exporting coal and also funds may be conserved by avoiding the need to import energy sources from other countries[4].

Site Analysis

The quantitative facts and qualitative personal accounts from CRV formulate a case study that links to broader theories of environmental justice and political economics.

The breaches of environmental justice are a direct result of the structure of capitalism.

Why is capitalism the issue?  In order to postpone crisis, both the first and second contradictions of capitalism exist in CRV[10].  First contradiction: MTR industry exploits labor by paying workers insufficient wages to maintain quality of life[9]Second contradiction: land is exploited through destruction of nature with no corresponding effort towards restoration[9].

Why is coal the issue?  Both the crisis of capitalism in CRV derives from the resource curse. Resource curse: when a community is located in proximity to a valuable resource, yet the community does not control the means of production, so they receive none of the profits[3]. CRV’s economy will not show subsequent booms from increasing coal demand because all profits go to investors and owners outside the community[4].

Why Coal River Valley?   Environmental justice theory transforms into the reality of uneven geography[11]. CRV is exposed to the crisis of capitalism due to the unlucky fact that they are geographically located in a land with a coal rich stratigraphy. Yet, it is not only the physical, but also the social qualities of coal that cause environmental injustices. The hybrid quality of resources explains why the mere existence of coal in a region does not cause all of these theories to become reality[12]. It is the value that society gives coal that creates the environmental injustice and uneven geography. The irony of uneven geography is overarching to communities worldwide. Those lands richest in resources are the lands with the most exploited marginalized class[11].

The story of Coal River Valley begins with a community’s unbreakable bond to their land and continues with the tragic personal accounts of CRV residents and the bleak data anlysis of their health and economic fortitude.

Momentum against mountaintop removal is growing. For more information on how to help put an end to this destructive practice visit


[1] EPA. “Coal River Mountain.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 30 Sept. 2014

[2] Mays, W. “Appalachian Voices.” Google Earth Outreach. Appalachian Voices, 2011. Accessed: 30 Sept. 2014.

[3] Barnhill, J. H. “Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities.” Technology and Culture 50.3 (2009): 701-03.

[4] Osha, J. “The Power-Knowledge to Move Mountains: Subaltern Discourses of Mountaintop Removal in Coal River Valley, WV.” WVU Scholar (2010). West Virginia University.

[5] Palmer, M. A., E. S. Bernhardt, W. H. Schlesinger, K. N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M. S. Hendryx, A. D. Lemly, G. E. Likens, O. L. Loucks, M. E. Power, P. S. White, and P. R. Wilcock. “Mountaintop Mining Consequences.” Science 327.5962 (2010): 148-49.

[6] Coal River Mountain Watch. “The Human Cost of Coal: Mountaintop Removal Effect on Health and the Economy.” I Love Mountains. n.d. Accessed: 30 Sept. 2014.

[7] Bell, S. E. Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice. Chicago: U of Illinois, 2013.

[8] Lindsey, Rebecca. “World of Change: Mountaintop Mining, West Virginia : Feature Articles.” Earth Observatory. NASA, 17 Sept. 2013. 01 Dec. 2014. <;.

[9] Wishart, R. “Coal River’s Last Mountain.” Organization & Environment 25.4 (2012): 470-85.

[10] Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. “Political Economy.”Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. N. pag.

[11] Mohai, Paul, and Timmons Roberts. “Environmental Justice.” The Annual Review of Environmental Resources 34 (2009): 405-30.

[12] Bridge, Gavin. “Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy.” Geography Compass 3.3 (2009): 1217-244.


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