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Surface Mining


Surface mining allows the removal of coal from the surface rather than through underground tunnels. It requires the stripping away of earth, rock, and vegetation (collectively known as overburden) from above the coal deposit, which can then be mined and trucked away. Often referred to as strip mining, the practice has a history of controversy due to its disturbance of the land.

The earliest recorded instances of surface mining in West Virginia occurred in 1916, and the practice became more common with the increased demand for coal during World War I. Surface mining failed to expand after the war, particularly in southern West Virginia, according to coal historian Robert F. Munn, because the rugged terrain and poor transportation made it difficult to get equipment to the coal and the coal to market. Later advances in diesel machinery, as well as improved highways and the development of large trucks, would free surface mines from the coal industry’s traditional reliance on railroads and allow the development of mines with much shorter life spans than underground mines.

The West Virginia Department of Mines first reported production figures for surface mining in 1938, when the northern counties of Preston, Brooke, and Hancock produced about 200,000 tons of coal using that technique. During World War II surface mining expanded quickly. Initial mining operations could begin with relatively small capital investments and produce large amounts of coal with few men and machines. Production reached 18.4 million tons by 1947.

As early as 1939, West Virginians were concerned about the environmental impact of surface mining, and the legislature passed a bill that year to regulate the practice. As surface mining increased and its environmental impact became more apparent, more legislation to protect the environment was enacted (in 1945, 1959, 1963, and 1967), and the Department of Mines created a separate division to inspect and regulate the operations. As surface mining became a political issue Governor Hulett Smith appointed a Task Force on Strip Mining which made recommendations for major changes. A successful lobbying effort by the Citizens Task Force on Mining led to tough new restrictions in a 1967 law that provided jail sentences and fines for failure to reclaim the stripped land.

Early surface mining operations generally involved cutting a bench along the side of the mountain, exposing the coal, and pushing much of the overburden over the side. This method produced a distinctive high wall, following the elevation of the coal seam around the mountain. Coal too far back under the mountain to be exposed by the bench cut was mined by big augers, which bored into the seam and drew the coal out the same way a wood drill brings out shavings. After 1967, the benches and high walls were required to be put back to the approximate original contours of the mountain. Much coal was left in the ground by the bench-mining method.

In the 1990s, a new form of mining attracted the attention of West Virginia residents. Mountaintops, which had formerly been left intact, began to be leveled through a new process caled mountaintop removal which gives access to coal which would be left behind by traditional strip-mining methods. Originally allowed by an exception in the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, mountaintop removal became common by the end of the century. The process greatly changed the landscape of southern West Virginia and, for all practical purposes, eliminated the idea that stripped mountains could be returned to something approaching their original contour. Instead, gigantic amounts of earth were removed and dumped into valleys, never to be returned to contour as earlier legislation had required. Surface mining of all types accounted for 60 million tons of the total of 157 million tons of West Virginia coal production in 2001. In 2009, it accounted for 56 million of the 144 million tons of coal produced.

Regardless of technique, some West Virginians sought to eliminate strip mining altogether. They found an early ally when West Virginia’s young secretary of state, Jay Rockefeller, announced in 1970 that he would work for the abolition of the practice. Rockefeller lost the 1972 gubernatorial election against Arch A. Moore, partly because of his stand on surface mining. Later, Rockefeller toned down his opposition and was elected governor twice, in 1976 and 1980, and then U.S. senator.

The growth of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia has rekindled the debate over surface mining in general. During the George W. Bush administration, mountaintop removal permits were granted more frequently, leading to court challenges from environmental groups. Since Barack Obama became president, permits have been more difficult to obtain. Mountaintop removal has polarized public and political opinion regarding opposition or support.

Written by Kenneth R. Bailey

Sources

  1. Bailey, Kenneth R. Development of Surface Mine Legislation 1939-1967. West Virginia History, (Apr. 1969).

  2. Munn, Robert F. The First 50 Years of Strip Mining in West Virginia, 1916-1965. West Virginia History, (Oct. 1973).