Mountaintop removal coal mining involves – exactly as the name suggests – the physical removal of a mountaintop to mine the coal located underneath. Used by coal mining companies in the Appalachia region of the U.S. (principally West Virginia, along with Kentucky and Virginia), it involves using explosives and “draglines” (large machines that can move more than 100 tons of material at a time) to remove overlying rock and soil, which is then simply pushed down the mountainside into nearby valleys (and associated streams and wetlands) to create so-called “valley fills.”  (It is estimated that valley fills have buried some 1500 miles of streams thus far.)


  • While the overall concern is, of course, over the destruction of local ecosystems, the legal context of the current fight is over technical language involving the Clean Water Act (CWA). Under the CWA, the Army Corps of Engineers determines what can and cannot be used for “fill” in streams and wetlands. The Corps longstanding definition of “fill” has explicitly prohibited the use of “waste material,” which has traditionally included removed rock and soil from mining operations. However, under political pressure, the Corps has issued permits for mountaintop-mining valley fills in apparent violation of its own rules. Seeking to avoid court challenges to this practice, in May 2002 the Bush Administration – through the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees implementation of the CWA – removed the provision that explicitly prohibited the use of “waste material” as fill. (This rule change has itself been challenged in court by environmental groups.)
  • The rule change concerning acceptable “fill” materials made by the EPA also affects other mining activities, most notably hardrock mining (see separate Issue Summary on “Mining on Federal Public Lands”).
  • In addition to the effects on ecosystems, concerns over mountaintop removal coal mining include effects on the local population (due to noise and air pollution), increased occurrence and severity of flooding (attributable to the decrease in available streams to carry off water), and the presence of large tailings impoundments (filled with black sludge/slurries generated by coal mining operations).
  • The EPA is currently spearheading development of a Mountaintop Mining Environmental Impact Statement. The initial draft, originally scheduled for release in 12/00, was finally issued in 5/02.
  • Mountaintop mining first started in the early 1970s and has accelerated in the 1990s due to changes in the Clean Air Act that gave utilities major incentives to use low-sulfur coal as found in Appalachia.


“It would be unreasonable and in stark variance with policy to allow the nation’s waters to be filled and destroyed solely to dispose of waste.”

—Judge Charles Haden (Southern District of West Virginia) in his 1999 ruling on mountaintop mining

“The individual and cumulative impacts to both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems caused by mining projects authorized in the Appalachians… are unprecedented.”

—Jeffrey Towner, Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, West Virginia Office

“The Corps says that blowing up forested mountains and dumping massive amounts of waste into streams has only a minimal adverse effect on the environment. I do not want to see what they would consider a major impact..”

—Howard Fox, Earthjustice [Source: Washington Post, 1/15/02]

“It’s the biggest localized environmental disaster in the country.  But it’s ignored because it keeps coal prices low.”

—Joe Lovett, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment [Source: LA Times, 4/14/02]

1998: West Virginia’s State Forester, William Maxey, quit in protest over continued mountaintop mining in forests within the state.

10/99: Chief Judge Charles Haden of the Southern District of West Virginia issued a ruling limiting mountaintop mining in the state, citing that state agencies had failed to enforce Clean Water Act laws affecting the practice. (His ruling was subsequently overturned in 4/01 by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state had constitutional immunity against the original lawsuit; subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1/02.)

10/00: A coal waste impoundment breaks in Kentucky, spilling 250 million gallons of sludge.

5/02: A draft Mountaintop Mining Environmental Impact Statement is issued by the EPA

5/01/02: The Charleston Gazette reports that the Bush Administration – led by controversial Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist – is seeking to centralize and streamline coal mine permitting. In particular, the report cites a 10/01 letter by Griles that calls for the EPA’s draft Mountaintop Mining Environmental Impact Statement to “focus on centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.”

5/3/02: The Bush administration approves a change to the Clean Water Act that allows the Army Corps of Engineers to include waste material – including mountaintop mining waste – as acceptable “fill.”

5/8/02: Judge Haden issues a ruling ordering the Army Corps to stop issuing permits for mountaintop mining-associated “valley fills.”