Mountaintop Removal/Coal Production 

What is it and what’s wrong with it?

Coal is the most widely used fuel in the world, yet it is an extremely dirty and environmentally damaging source of energy. Although coal energy has enabled great industrial development over the past few hundred years, the earth pays a high price for its use. Of particular concern today is the contemporary American coal mining practice of “mountaintop removal” (MTR). describes MTR as “a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Mountaintop removal takes place in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia increasingly use this cost-effective mining method because it "allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require.”

Aside from the burning of coal itself, which creates dangerous amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases, the production of coal requires the burning of large quantities of oil and gas.

Mountaintop removal requires vast amounts of earth called “overburden” are scooped off the top of a mountain so miners can use explosives to access and the coal seams buried beneath rock and soil. After the underlying coal is exploited, the extracted earth is later dumped back on top of the mountain to “approximate” the original shape of the mountain.

This process results in erosion and deforestation. Mountaintop removal mining also leads to the contamination of nearby soils and water bodies, as toxic mining byproducts form “slurry” (sludge) that leaches into the immediate environment. According to recent scientific studies, “people living near such surface mining sites have a 50 percent greater risk of fatal cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of birth defects than the general population.”  

 What’s been done?

Environmental rights groups in the Appalachian region—like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highland Conservancy, and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth—are working hard to stop mountaintop removal. These and other groups work with major activist networks, like Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Earthjustice, and Appalachian Voices, to help influence policy and legislation that will end the practice of mountaintop removal once and for all.

 What can you do? 

-Use less heat and air conditioning

-Use energy efficient light bulbs

-Buy energy efficient appliances

-Turn off the lights when not in use

-Unplug appliances when they are not in use, especially cell phone chargers

-Turn off electrical appliances when not in use

-Invest in alternative energy solutions 

-You can take some easy online actions to tell the US government that we need to end the practice of mountaintop removal: online action center

-Become a “Mountain Hero” by joining the Earthjustice campaign against mountaintop removal mining

-Join in on the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal project (see Campuses Beyond Coal).


Learn more here:



“How Australian Coal is Causing Global Damage: False Profits” by Bill McKibben (2013)

“We Need a War on Coal” by Peter Singer (2013)



Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future by Jeff Goodell (2007)

Coal River by Michael Shnayerson (2008)

Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight Against Big Coal by Bryan T. McNeil (2012)

Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal by Peter A. Galuszka (2012)



Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008)

Coal Country (2009)

The Last Mountain (2010)


video clips

No More Excuses, End Mountaintop Removal: Appalachian Voices-Children (2013)

North Dakota Coal Pollution- Toxic Hot Spot (2011)

The Health Impacts of Coal (2010)

The Land of Mountaintop Removal: The Smithsonian Channel (2013)