Page last updated at 20:39 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 21:39 UK

Battle raging in US mining country

A mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia
Despite its obvious environmental impact, mountaintop mining still has support from many in West Virginia

Opinion is divided in West Virginia's coal belt over a controversial mining technique, reports Jean Snedegar for the BBC's Americana programme.

For years, a battle has been raging in the Appalachian Mountains over a coal-mining practice known as "mountaintop removal mining".

In the last three decades this kind of mining has flattened some 2,500 square miles, and buried more than 1,200 miles of mountain streams.

With a new administration in Washington, the battle over mountaintop removal mining is heating up, most notably in southern West Virginia - and grassroots activists are at the forefront.

Blasting and dumping

Maria Gunnoe, 41, lives with her husband and two children in a tiny community called Bob White, in Boone County, which produces more coal than any other county in the state.

Her family has lived in the area for more than 200 years, and coal mining has been in her family for generations. Two of her brothers are underground miners.

But over the last 10 years, coal has started to threaten her land, and her life. Three different mountaintop removal operations surround Ms Gunnoe's home, which sits in a steep, narrow hollow. The first mine started in 2001.

"To begin with I heard chainsaws," she tells me.

"When I went back, I seen massive clear-cutting on the mountain behind where I live at. All of the trees and timber that weren't of value went into the valley behind me."

Maria Gunnoe, an anti-mountaintop removal mining activist
I had the opportunity to sit and watch the sun set on this mountain for the last time last year... It'll never happen again - the mountain has been blasted down now
Maria Gunnoe
Anti-mountaintop removal activist

Shortly afterwards, the mining company began blasting the top off the mountain, and dumping the rock and debris - called "overburden" - that it had removed from above the coal seam into the valley as well.

When she walked up the stream that flows by her house - also her main water source - she noticed it was plugged.

"This is known as a valley fill," Ms Gunnoe explains.

The valley fill contained two ponds full of waste water from the mine.

In 2003, some of that waste water broke through and flooded the narrow valley where Ms Gunnoe lives.

"The flooding devastated our property. In places it was 20ft deep and 60ft wide - almost like a mini-tsunami. It literally washed live standing trees by myself and my family. We were trapped in. We had no way out."

And emergency services had no way in.

In the flood's wake, Ms Gunnoe and her husband lost five acres of land, the access road to their property and the stream which served as their water supply. Today it contains toxic levels of selenium.

Disappearing communities

Regular blasting continues above her property.

"I have coal dust inside of my computers, my TVs, my refrigerator - everything in my home is inundated by coal dust. My kids shouldn't have to be breathing this. Our community members shouldn't have to be breathing this."

Ms Gunnoe's experiences turned her into an activist and community organiser against mountaintop mining.

Since 2004, she has testified at hearings for mountaintop removal permits and in lawsuits against coal companies.

As a result, she faces regular intimidation from angry miners who feel she is taking away their jobs.

But Ms Gunnoe is eager to show anyone who will listen what the mining has done to the community where she grew up - to the homes, air and water.

From her house, we drive about 10 miles along a narrow, twisty road that used to be populated with small mining communities.

Roger Horton, Citizens for Coal
For every mining job that's out here, there's approximately four or five other jobs that are generated by that one miner working
Roger Horton
Citizens for Coal

But with mountaintop mines on either side of the road, many of the mountaintops have disappeared.

Pointing to one flattened summit, Ms Gunnoe says: "I had the opportunity to sit and watch the sun set on this mountain for the last time last year - for the last time ever. It'll never happen again - the mountain has been blasted down now."

Most of the small communities have disappeared too. Residents have been bought out, or driven out by the noise of blasting and large mining machines.

Despite the obvious environmental impact on land and water, many people in West Virginia support mountaintop mining.

Coal brings 20,000 mining-related jobs and earns $8bn (£5bn) a year.

Of that, the state gets more than $400m in taxes - a major source of income in the state.

Job generation

About 25 miles from Maria Gunnoe's home, Roger Horton drives a lorry at Guyan Mine, owned by St Louis-based Patriot Coal and the sixth largest mountaintop mine in West Virginia.

In January, he started a pro-mountaintop mining group called Citizens for Coal.

"I decided that we should be pro-active," Mr Horton says.

"We should come forward and tell the entire world what it is that we do here and how it benefits America. Over half of the electrical energy that we use in this country is derived from coal."

Mr Horton points out the clear economic benefits: that miners earn two to three times the average wage of the area, and how some former mining sites have been reclaimed.

On one site near his home is a new regional jail. On another, an industrial park, and on a third, a new NASCAR racetrack is being built.

"On top of that, for every mining job that's out here, there's approximately four or five other jobs that are generated by that one miner working," Mr Horton says. "And we buy cars, we buy homes, we buy clothing, food - it's just in the best interest of everybody for us to continue working. It really is."

In late June, Maria Gunnoe and Roger Horton took their battle to Washington - to a Senate sub-committee hearing on "The Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining on Water Quality in Appalachia".

At the hearing, Maria Gunnoe told her story, and Roger Horton and 200 other miners and their families were there to show their support for mountaintop mining.

Two senators - Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee - are planning to introduce legislation that could effectively ban mountaintop removal mining.

This is music to the ears of those like Ms Gunnoe who believe passionately that it should be stopped, and anathema to those who support mountaintop removal mining.

Though Maria Gunnoe's work recently brought her the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America - sometimes referred to as the "Green Nobel" - Roger Horton remains confident that mountaintop removal mining will not be stopped any time soon.

"I believe that in the end that we will be victorious, and continue to mine coal," he said.

This article is an adaptation of a feature that was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Americana programme. Americana is broadcast at 1915 BST every Sunday on BBC Radio 4 FM.

Print Sponsor

Barack Obama's coal conundrum
08 Dec 08 |  Science & Environment
West Virginia's devastated community
04 Jan 06 |  Americas
Award for US coalmine activist
14 Apr 03 |  Science & Environment


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific