Mountain Top Removal

This morning in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch I read an article about a wrangle between Arch Coal, based in Creve Couer, MO, and the federal EPA regulators. Arch is wanting to remove the tops of several mountains in West Virginia in order to get access to coal; WV residents are opposed to this (I can’t blame them) and the EPA is blocking the corporate move.

I’ve seen the results of mountain-top removal in West Virginia. It’s a sad sight, only possible in the past because the residents of the mountain valleys tend to be poor and without political clout.

The Post-Dispatch article mentioned another coal company in the St. Louis area which has also had disputes with the feds concerning their mining practices in West Virginia. I was interested and wondered why coal companies which were involved in mountain-top removal seem to be located in St. Louis, rather than in the Appalachians. Peabody Coal came to mind; I looked the firm up on the net and found that their headquarters is in St. Louis as well!

Here’s a satellite photo of a scalped mountain in West Virginia. What doesn’t show up in the photo is the silty spoils deposited in nearby ravines and valleys:

I’ve been pondering, and my conclusion is that the American coal industry is gradually transitioning from a focus on the Appalachian region to the Powder River region in Wyoming. There is a lot more coal there, and from what I’ve heard much of it will be sold to China. During my tumultuous years in Hannibal, I noticed numerous boxcars of coal from Wyoming trundling south towards a coal-fired power plant near St. Louis.

Of course, the big question is: how long can this last? Stay tuned for the resource wars of the 21st Century…

Larry (who has a regrettable fondness for ellipses…)



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16 responses to “Mountain Top Removal

  1. Darrell

    Resource wars? If so, nothing new . . some have speculated that was the true cause of the Trojan War

  2. I’ve also heard that supposition about the causes of the Trojan War, Darrell. It could be argued that all wars have their origins in the desire for resources combined with excess testosterone.

    Think about the motivations for the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. Would the Japanese have committed themselves to such a risky and foolhardy course of action if they weren’t worried about being cut off from their supplies of crude oil and rubber, commodities which they deemed to be necessary for their goal of becoming the top dogs of the Western Pacific region?

  3. Virginia

    The coal you see coming in from Wyoming is younger, lower-grade coal than the older higher-BTU coal in W. Virginia. Deep mining is problematic in that it is more costly to retrieve the coal and ensure safety of miners. Mining companies see the solution as lopping off the mountain tops. You’re right about the people in the area being poor and having little voice. But there are environmental regulations to fall back on. An open pit mine in an area with ample rainfall could lead to acid mine drainage, as pyrite in the coal degrades and forms sulfuric acid. That area isn’t blessed with limestone to buffer the acid as is the midwest, so that would be another problem that has happened too often in the Appalachian Mountains. Hopefully the beautiful mountains will be allowed to stand.

  4. Ellipsis: a miniature tailings pile at the end of a sentence…

  5. Hi, Dave! Nice of you to stop by. A message to any of my readers: click on Dave’s name and you will see some really fine essays and [screetch, scratch… what’s going on here? I’m losing control of this comment…]

    Not to worry, Larry, it’s just your old friend the Dictionary Demon. I couldn’t help butting in here to give you and your readers some definitions. That’s my job, after all!

         1. (Gram.) Omission; a figure of syntax, by which 
             one or more words, which are obviously 
             understood, are omitted; as, the virtues I 
             admire, for, the virtues which I admire.
         2. (Geom.) An ellipse. [Obs.]
         3. (Printing) a printing symbol, usually three 
             periods in a row (. . .), indicating the 
             omission of some part of a text; -- used 
             commonly in quotations, so as to suppress
              words not essential to the meaning. A long 
             dash (---) and three asterisks (* * *) are 
             sometimes used with the same  meaning.
  6. Joan

    I think the operative word here is ‘tailings’ from the Dave Bonta guy who entertains hopes that mountaintop removal will someday be punishable by death. (grin)
    Clicking on Dave’s name will bring you a wealth of nature ponderings in the form of fine poetry as well as essays on just about everything. He has a number of blogs but the main one is Via Negativa He lives on a family owned nature preserve in the mountainous region of PA., and as such is pretty familiar with the destructive forces of mountaintop removal.
    BTW Thanks Virginia. I have heard of the horrors of lead mine run-off but was not as familiar with the coal problem. (shudder)

  7. Darrell

    I think there used to be a fair amount of coal mining in the Perry area. However it must have been of a lesser quality; my folks wouldn’t use it and said “Perry coal isn’t very good; it’s dirty burning.” But our neighbors on Market St. used it, then converted to stokers.
    In the early-mid ’50’s we converted to natural gas and life became a but easier and I had run of the full basement when the “coal bin” (actually just a wooden partition on the floor) was removed. I was forbidden access to the coal bin under some sort of now forgotten dire threat . . . probably a scrub bath whether I wanted it or not. Whatever. NOW does anyone recall Perry coal and how it was mined?

  8. Joan

    Our furnace was already converted to gas before I was born to the house on Center Street BUT Grandfather Hibbard who lived on Rock Street, had a coal burning furnace with an automatic ‘stoker’. All I remember was a coal skuttle (sp.?) full of red brown colored ‘clinkers’ on the back terrace. They looked like exotic rocks to me. I was fascinated. Also you could ‘draw’ with them on concrete. (grin)

  9. Virginia

    This short exerpt about coal mining in Perry, Mo from “History of Perry, MO” is online at

    “The 1823 “A New America Atlas” by Henry S. Tanner showed coal in the area which later became Perry. By 1892 three mines operated in the area producing more than 600 tons a year. A report of railroad shipments for the year 1901 showed 920 cars of coal shipped from Perry by the Short Line Railroad. The strip and underground mining peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with operation continuing into the 1950’s. Mining began again in 1980 and operated for a short time. “

  10. I wonder how much locally-burned coal came from the Perry mining operation. It was probably the closest coal mine to Hannibal. I imagine there were coal haulers who would load up in Perry and deliver coal on a regular route — I seem to remember someone telling me that the coal haulers often delivered ice during the summer.

    Interesting, Virginia!

    I believe the Short Line railroad is the one which once extended from the Mississippi near Bear Creek (in Hannibal) to the Perry area. That RR once served the long-defunct Marblehead Lime quarry (formerly known as Bear Creek Lime). The railroad embankment is still visible on the south side of Bear Creek, and part of it has been converted to a little-used walking and bike trail and is now owned by the city. The trail extends from the iron bridge which leads to the old quarry site almost to the river; it’s perhaps a couple of miles long.

  11. Darrell

    Larry, I think the Short Line was on the south side of Bear Creek originally. But In my memory, the Burlington Route serviced the Lime Plant. After I got my drivers license in Feb., ’58, on weekend nights I’d drive over there and wait for my Dad to finish his “draw” from the kilns so he could sneak out and quickly drive me home to Market Street. BUT quite oftern the Burlington switch engine had also arrived, so I’d have to wait until the loaded hopper cars were down the track and away and that might take another hour or more, so I’d sit around and listen to the guys gab (the railroad men spent more time sitting in the old stone office than operating the train by a 2 to 1 ratio at least). As for the walking path, I’d like to use it some time.
    Virginia, I didn’t realize coal mining was going on in the ’80’s. Are any of the pits/mines still visible?

    BTW . . . did anyone notice the artwork link I listed under the “dead birdies” article? Check it. You might find it interesting

  12. Darrell

    Regarding Perry . . . therer is a very famous gunsmithing operation there: Ed Brown Products. Pricey too!!

  13. Virginia

    Darrell, I haven’t checked for pits near Perry but will try to make a point of it now. If there is any accessible coal I like to check for sphalerite (a zinc mineral) in the coal cleats. Also it would be nice to know the surrounding rock type(s). Present reclamation laws may ruin the opportunity.

  14. Darrell

    Virginia, did you write that the Perry coal would be younger than the Appalachan varieties? How old would “younger” be?

  15. Virginia

    I was speaking of coal maturation actually. Coal in the Appalachians is either anthracite, a metamorphic coal changed by heat and pressure, or high grade bituminous coal which has also been changed by heat of deep burial but not to the point of changing to a metamorphic type. The mid-continent bituminous coals are a good grade but do not have the heating capacity of the eastern coals. Western coals are lignites or poorer grade bituminous coals. They haven’t matured as long and do not have the heating capacity or low temperature ignition that mid-continent coal has. Western coals are very low sulfur though, so they are much in demand. Sorry for the boring lecture. I cut a lot of it out.

  16. Darrell

    Virginia, okay, include the deletions.

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