This week, hundreds of protesters are marching to Blair Mountain in West Virginia to call for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. The march commemorates the Battle of Blair Mountain – one of the most significant labor battles in American history, and one of the few times in history when a sitting U.S. president threatened to use air strikes against American citizens. The group Appalachia Rising organized the march to draw attention to the practice of mountaintop mining, which is destroying large swaths of the Appalachian Mountains. Blair Mountain was added to a list of historic U.S. sites back in 2008, but due to pressure from the coal industry, the mountain was removed from the protected list and could now be subjected to mountaintop removal mining.
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) entails blowing the tops off of entire mountains in order to extract the coal seems within. The method became popular when coal companies realized that they could produce two and a half times as much coal per worker hour by removing the tops of mountains, rather than traditional coal mining methods. As a result, some states have reduced the number of coal workers by as much as 60%, while output and profits have remained steady.
In addition to the obvious loss of mountains, the practice is riddled with environmental dangers. In order to extract the coal, the areas around the mountain are clear-cut, destroying wildlife habitat and leading to soil erosion. The waste products from the coal extraction also leak into water supplies, contaminating them with mercury, lead, sulfur, and other dangers chemicals. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, a staggering 2,200 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains will have been destroyed thanks to mountaintop removal mining.
Massey Energy, which was recently acquired by Alpha Natural Resources, has been the poster-child for mountaintop removal for years. And rightfully so. Massey / Alpha are responsible for the vast majority of MTR mining occurring in Appalachia. The company was fined $20 million in 2008 for violating the Clean Water Act, and has an abysmal safety record, including its infamous reputation for operating “recklessly” at the Upper Big Branch mine, which resulted in the deaths of 29 mine workers at the mine last year. On top of that, their former CEO Don Blankenship is a self-admitted union buster who has given millions of dollars to Republicans and the Tea Party movement who favor letting the industry do as it pleases.
But as bad as Massey’s corporate reputation is, they aren’t the only villains in this tragic story. As media reports have focused on the deeds of Massey, the other mountaintop removal mining companies have been let off the hook, operating under the radar of most activists and the media. Here are a few of the other companies that are destroying Appalachia and other parts of America with MTR:
1. Arch Coal – Boasting that they supply more than 15% of America’s coal, Arch sold 2.1 million tons worth of MTR coal last year. Arch’s annual revenues top $1 billion, making them the nation’s second largest coal producer.
2. CONSOL Energy – Recently forced to pay $5.5 million in damages in West Virginia for their mountaintop mining activities, and to spend another $200 million on pollution control. Actively working with the U.S. Department of Energy on coal technologies, including coal-to-liquid technologies.
5. Patriot Coal – Operates 14 different mountaintop removal sites throughout Appalachia and Illinois.
Together with Massey, these six companies account for more than half of all of the mountaintop mining activities in America.