In a big win for many environmental groups, Patriot Coal pledged to begin scaling back its mountaintop mining in Kentucky during its bankruptcy filings in 2012.

For decades Appalachian coal companies have been implementing a specific form of strip mining that allows for larger profits through more efficient coal excavation. Mountaintop mining as it is called by some is perhaps better described as mountaintop removal mining. The process has enabled coal companies to continue to produce large amounts of coal despite a difficult market, but as is the case with many strip mining operations, the practice is increasingly coming under fire on several fronts – both from environmental and labor groups.

What's more, a story published yesterday by Taylor Kuykendall of SNL Financial reveals a new wrinkle to the argument against mountaintop mining. As reported by Kuykendall, Patriot Coal Corporation's CEO, Bennett Hatfield, has announced ending the practice is turning out to be as much of a win for the company as is has been framed as a win by the environmentalist groups fighting for increased industry restrictions.

The mountaintop mining process

The Appalachian Mountains have long been known for coal resources. Generations of residents have braved dangerous conditions and suffered from the ensuing diseases associated with traditional underground mining techniques. Over the years, these adverse effects of traditional mining conditions have led mining companies to pursue alternative techniques to extract coal from the landscape. Utilizing technology, the newest mining techniques were designed during the past half-century, in theory to protect the lives of miners themselves.

In general, these techniques have become known as strip mining. Rather than digging shafts that reach below surface rock formations in search of coal seams, strip mining removes these surface layers in their entirety to expose coal seams, enabling easier extraction.

Mountaintop mining is an extreme form of strip mining. The process begins by clearing an entire summit of vegetation. From there, explosives demolish hundreds of feet of elevation to expose the coal seams below. Sometimes this demolition can remove in excess of 400 feet from a summit. As the mountaintop is excavated, coal is extracted and the remaining rock fragments are disposed of in the surrounding valleys, effectively leveling the landscape.

Once all the coal has been extracted from a site, most companies make an effort to reintroduce vegetation to the environment, turning the mountain into an artificial plateau.

Controversy abounds

Mountaintop mining has long been surrounded by controversy, and understandably so. It's hard to imagine not eliciting strong opinions when mountaintops are being removed in the name of cheaper energy. As with all energy stories, the argument over mountaintop mining practices has more than one side.

Our nation's economy still requires a lot of coal. Many states across the country continue to garner the majority of their electricity from coal-burning power plants, and pressure from workers' rights organizations has played its part in pushing big coal companies to explore "safer" mining techniques.

The problem with mountaintop mining is not its economic feasibility. In fact, mountaintop mining is arguably the most profitable coal mining technique to date. The larger issue is an environmental one, not only to the ecosystems of the mountains themselves but to the human populations in surrounding areas as well. Much of this danger comes from the process of disposing of demolished mountainous rocks in neighboring valleys. This practice threatens waterways by introducing toxic chemicals from the mining process and heavy metals from deep within the earth to the water table, exposing plants, animals and humans to their effects.

As environmental groups work to prevent more coal companies from continuing to use mountaintop mining processes, the industry is still trying to develop a solution that will benefit everyone. Time will tell if the practice lasts much longer in the face of increasing opposition and data supporting cessation from the industry itself.

Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices.

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