A Trip to Mountaintop Mining Country

John Denver called it “almost heaven,” but West Virginia is changing. Is it for the better?

Coal Mining and Controversy

In the past, it was unions vs. mining companies. Today, environmentalists are lining up against mining companies over the practice of large-scale surface mining, aka mountaintop removal, in the Central Appalachians. Environmentalists claim the process permanently scars the land and pollutes the water. Mining interests maintain that pollution is limited, the land can be reclaimed, and coal mining is critical to West Virginia’s — and the nation’s — economic health.

Who’s right? What are the facts? To find out, I’m in Logan, West Virginia, this week with some colleagues from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment to tour the mining sites and the adjacent communities and talk to the people directly involved with and affected by coal mining. Today’s post features two sets of people — all seemingly good folks — with sharply different viewpoints on the issue.

Tommy Ellison – Former Coal Miner

We kicked things off with a helicopter tour of the area, courtesy of Helicopter Solutions’ Tommy Ellison.

Tommy Ellison, former coal miner and proprietor of Helicopter Solutions, believes mountaintop mining is right for West Virginia.

Tommy, who looks to be in his 60s, is fit, easy-going and friendly with a warm smile and a Huck Finn-like mischievousness about him.

A Tennessee native, he was sent into the mines as a teenager when his dad announced it was time for him to get to work. He eventually found himself in West Virginia, he told me, as president of a surface-mining company that operated several mines, including Wylo in Stowe.

Some years ago, he retired from the industry to pursue his other passion — flying helicopters — and so, a former coal mine president came to be our guide as we flew over some of the world’s largest mountaintop mining operations.

Tommy was glad to take on the role because he wanted to be sure we got the industry’s side of the story. As we climbed into the helicopter, he told me that “we [the coal mining industry] believe in what we’re doing” — America needs coal, coal-mining is essential for the economic development of one of the country’s poorest regions, and surface mining is the safest and most environmentally friendly way to extract coal (most of the area’s environmental problems related to coal mining, he claimed, stem from the many below-surface mines). As for global warming, Tommy is unconvinced it’s an issue so is not concerned about the large carbon dioxide emissions from coal.

Barren landscapes over an active part of the Hobet mine. Could this one day become the site of a new urban center?

He went on to argue, though, that West Virginian coal miners do care about the environment and try to protect it, and that mountaintop mining is not a negative for West Virginia’s landscape.

That last point is hard to swallow when you’re confronted with the stark reality of ongoing mining operations — it’s about as desolate as you can get (see photos from the Hobet mine).

Fills, created by pushing overburden or waste from the surface mine into a valley, must be reclaimed by using terraces to prevent erosion and building draining ditches along the sides to direct runoff. A retention pond (collects sediment and treats the water before it flows off-site and into the surrounding groundwater system. An old valley fill that has reforested. Many in the industry say that all reclaimed sites will eventually be reforested like this. The retention pond can be seen at the bottom.

But Ellison flew us over great expanses of unspoiled mountains as well as a number of former mining sites that had been reclaimed and now sport green rolling hills (see Wylo photo).

Critics point out that these reclaimed sites rarely have substantial trees because the topsoil is thin, rocky and unable to retain water — they may look nice, but they’re not providing the ecosystem services that the mountains once did.

Ellison counters that the changed landscape actually represents an improvement — a mountainous land once unsuitable to economic development is being transformed into vastly more valuable, “flat, more developable” land ready for investment and development. In essence coal mining is footing the bill for West Virginia’s infrastructure.

The Walmart in Logan, West Virginia, is built on the reclaimed site of a former surface mine.

He went so far as to predict that the site of the Hobet mine — one of the country’s largest surface-mining operations covering 15 square miles — will one day become a major urban center and economic engine for the state.

Despite the mining and reclamation in Central Appalachia, the region retains many breathtaking vistas of natural mountains and forests. What percentage of mined/reclaimed land would be too much? View of the reclaimed Wylo mine site. Tommy Ellison, who served as the mine’s president, is proud of the award-winning reclamation site.

I learned a lot during our time with Ellison. Untouched mountains are still a feature of the Logan area, and the reclaimed mining sites looked a lot better that I’d anticipated, and, fair enough, can perhaps provide some land for economic development. But just how much flat land is needed?

A helicopter view of the 23-acre Caudill-Miller home which is surrounded on three sides by the Hobet mine.

In 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency estimated [pdf] that about seven percent of Central Appalachia’s land would be impacted by surfacing mining by 2012, made ready, if you will, for economic development. More recent analyses by the nonprofit groups Appalachian Voices and the Natural Resources Defense Council put the estimate at 10 percent. How much more is needed? When is more too much?

And then there are the off-site effects of mining. The runoff from the valley fills can pollute local rivers and streams, leading to ecological and perhaps human health effects. Ellison maintains that such pollution only comes from below-surface mines. But other information (see here and here) and our own water quality data (more here) suggest otherwise. Which brings us to the Caudill-Millers.

The Caudill-Millers – A Family Full of Coal Mining History

The Caudill-Miller homeplace is unique — not only are its 23 acres along the Mud River surrounded on three sides by the Hobet mine but also it took a government decree to allow the family to keep the land as their home. (Watch time-lapsed growth of mine.)

In the 1990s Arch Coal, then the Hobet mine operator, determined that the property was essential to mine operations. While some of the 10 siblings of the original family sold their shares, others would not. And
so Arch Coal went about taking the remaining land by eminent domain. In Arch Coal vs. Harper the family won their case and were allowed to keep the land.

I learned all about the Caudill-Millers’ travails over lunch at their homeplace following our helicopter tour. Our hosts included Therman Caudill, Rose Thompson, and Lucille Miller, three of 10 siblings who grew up in the homeplace, as well as Lorene Caudill (Therman’s wife), Leon Miller (Lucille’s husband), and Anita Miller (Therman and Laurene’s daughter).

The Caudill-Millers at their home the State Supreme Court ruled they could keep despite claims the property was needed for Arch Coal’s Hobet mine. Leon Miller (white shirt) led the court battle.

Like Tommy Ellison, the Caudill-Millers have their roots firmly grounded in the coal industry, although in a different way. Therman’s dad worked in the mines, and back in the early 20th century their home was the site of mine worker union meetings. When Therman was a young boy, and before Rose and Lucille had been born, their father lost most of his eyesight in a mining accident. The family received a one-time compensation from the mining company of $100 and a monthly check from the state of about $35.

When I asked them how they survived on that, Lucille pointed to the front yard and said “we had a big garden.”

The children took different directions when they grew up. Rose and Lucille married men who did not work in the mines, and Therman became a teacher. (His first teaching gig was in a one-room schoolhouse for grades 1–8 and he’d walk the four miles to and from the school each day because he did not have a car.) But while the family may have left the coal industry they never lost their love of their family homeplace.

The once seasonal stream at the Caudill-Miller’s now runs year-round and is polluted by runoff from the Hobet mine. The black stains on the rocks is from manganese deposits. Leaves falling into other area streams quickly become brittle from a coating of carbonate that precipitates out of the water.

Last House Standing

The Caudill-Miller home is the last one standing in a once-vibrant neighborhood that featured a couple churches, a post office and store. The mining industry, they say, pushed everyone else out. And while they’re quick to point out that the coal-mining people have been good neighbors since the family won its lawsuit, they worry about the mine’s pollution.

The stream next to their home which used to be seasonal now runs year-round — presumably because the mined land is unable to retain water. And our measurements confirm that that stream is contaminated with chemicals from runoff from the mine.

Different Strokes for Different Folks? Or …?

The family told us they’re not against coal or coal mining, just that it should be done in a different way — in their view, mountaintop mining is too destructive, and, rather than producing jobs, it takes them away. (The mining companies would counter that the coal seams they’re extracting are too shallow for traditional mining and only amenable to surface mining.)

Leon Miller was most adamant about exporting coal from West Virginia. It’s not right, he argues, to destroy our mountains in order to send coal to a country like China where they will burn it without any environmental safeguards.


This morning we head home with a lot of information and images to digest. Most vivid in my mind is the sheer scale of the mountaintop mining process. Pictures cannot convey the size of the mines and the amount of earth that is moved. Having said that, I’d reiterate that many of the reclamation sites look a lot better than I’d expected. But an entire state with lopped off, flat-topped mountains would be a tragedy. Perhaps 10 percent of the mountains are gone now. Would it be too radical an idea for the various groups to get together and decide how much lopping is too much lopping?

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of mountaintop removal is the destruction of a culture that is unique to West Virginia ‘s mountains. A local activist here said that the “mountains are our soul and they’re taking it away.” Whole communities have disappeared — not just the buildings or even the people, but the land itself. If you’re from West Virginia you may find that the price of progress is that the old country road no longer takes you home.

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