Mountaintop Removal Mining and Flash Floods in West Virginia

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In West Virginia, extreme flooding has left dozens of people dead and more than a thousand homes destroyed. At the time of writing, more rain is forecasted for the state in the coming week and flash flood warnings have been posted. This article will focus on the possible connections between these historic, record­breaking floods that have recently hit the Appalachian state and the rather common technique of mountaintop removal mining that occurs there. By focusing on the mining, I do not mean to diminish the loss of human lives in West Virginia. But if the mining can indeed be tied to these flash floods, then a serious discussion of resource extraction methods ought to occur even there in coal mining country.

Mountaintop removal mining is when explosives are used to blast through the peak of a mountain and expose coal that is buried below. The practice has destructive consequences on the trees of the mountain, as well as the streams. Both trees and streams are crucial for slowing rain as it travels down the mountain and preventing flooding. A recent study by scientists at Duke University, published this January in Environmental Science & Technology extensively researched the effects of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Most notably perhaps, is that they found that the removed earth is dumped in nearby valleys, which raises their low points and also negatively impacts their drainage capabilities. On a page on the website for the Appalachian Voices organization, they say that a 2009 flood “was the 19th flood in 11 years to hit Mingo County and surrounding areas of southern West Virginia’s coalfields”. Even earlier, in 2002, the New York Times published an article on West Virginians who opposed mountaintop mining because it exacerbated flooding.


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The recent flash floods have not been tied to mountaintop removal mining, but with many scientific studies finding a connection between the two, a legacy of public outcry, and more frequent flooding since the practice began, a case is building against this controversial method of coal extraction.

3D surface analysis showing areas with significant elevation change (valley filling in red, ridge cutting in blue) at a single valley fill, Connelly Branch in the Hobet Mine Complex, WV. Source: Ross, et al., 2016.
3D surface analysis showing areas with significant elevation change (valley filling in red, ridge cutting in blue) at a single valley fill, Connelly Branch in the Hobet Mine Complex, WV. Source: Ross, et al., 2016.

Reference

Ross, Matthew R. V., Brian L. McGlynn, and Emily S. Bernhardt. 2016. “Deep Impact: Effects of Mountaintop Mining on Surface Topography, Bedrock Structure, and Downstream Waters”. Environmental Science & Technology 5 0 (4): 2064­2074.

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