Mountain Top Mining Issues & Responses



Some simple facts about mountaintop mining:

Mountaintop mining has been practiced in Kentucky for almost 30 years.

Surface mining methods are essentially the same as highway construction.

Valley fills are areas where the rock and dirt from mining excavation are placed according to a plan designed by engineers and approved by government agencies.

The amount of actual stream loss from fills is minimal.  In fact, where most fills are placed, there is no actual stream, only a dry channel.

Mining operations have helped improve habitat for wildlife in Kentucky. 

Landowners must give their permission for mountaintop mining.

Mountaintop mining has created numerous sites for new schools, hospitals, shopping centers, parks, golf courses, housing, airports, industry, agriculture and timber in Eastern Kentucky.

Fills constructed by mining operations are no different from highway fills.

Myths surrounding mountaintop mining are abundant.

MYTH: “Mountaintop mining flattens the mountain.” 
  In Kentucky, the topmost portion of the mountain is mined and generally leveled for the maximum recovery of coal.  Once reclaimed, it still looks like a mountain.  What’s left is flatter, more useful land on the top of the mountain.

MYTH:  “That mountaintop removal was something not considered in the federal surface mining law.”
Mountaintop mining was being conducted in 1977 when the federal surface mining law was enacted.  Section 515 (c) of Public Law 95-87 is the statutory provision that clearly allows mountaintop mining to “…remove an entire coal seam or seams running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill… by removing all of the overburden and creating a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining…”

MYTH:  That valley fills associated with mining eliminate streams.
The characterization that the mining industry is “burying streams under mountains of waste from huge strip mines” is extremely misleading.  Typically you think of a steam with flowing water year-round.  Ninety-five percent of the “streams” that are covered with fill material (rock and sandstone) are actually intermittent or ephemeral streams---they flow only in connection with a rainfall event. These streams could also be characterized as “gullies” or “dry branches”.  Obviously, there are no fish in these streams.  And, mining creates a new “water course” along the top of the fill and down both sides of the face of the fill to replace the existing “gully” or “dry branch.”  So, even if it is classified as a “stream”, the stream isn’t eliminated, its elevation is merely changed.

MYTH:  That stream flows are adversely affected by valley fills. 
The U. S.  Department of the Interior and the U. S. Geological Survey just released an Investigations Report on mountaintop mining and valley fills, entitled “Reconnaissance of Stream Geomorphology, Low Streamflow, and Stream Temperature in the Mountaintop Coal-Mining Region, Southern West Virginia, 1999-2000.”  It concluded these positive results from valley fill sites.

a.      More stream flow during dry periods.
b.      Less storm flow volume.
c.      More stable water temperatures.


Do fills impact streams?

The U.S. Department of the Interior and the U. S. Geological Survey very recently released an Investigations Report on mountaintop mining and valley fills, entitled “Reconnaissance of Stream Geomorphology, Low Streamflow, and Stream Temperature in the Mountaintop Coal-Mining Region, Southern West Virginia, 1999-2000.”  It concluded:

    Daily streamflows from valley-fill sites generally are greater than daily streamflows from unmined sites during periods of low streamflow.

    Valley-fill sites have a greater percentage of base-streamflows and lower percentage of stormflows than unmined sites.

    Water temperatures from a valley-fill site exhibited lower daily fluctuations and less seasonal variations than water temperature from an unmined site.

Theseconclusions are exactly what we’ve been saying for years.  Mining fills essentially operate as huge sponges, creating better water base flows than existed prior to mining.


Need for level land in Appalachia

Mountaintop removal in Kentucky has been very positive.   This mining practice only impacts the top 10% of the mountain, provides much needed and valuable level land, handsomely pays the surface owner several thousand dollars for the use of his land, and leaves the land many times more valuable than prior to mining.  I know if I were a surface owner, I would insist that the land be left level with numerous ponds.

Fairly level tracts with ponds and a wide road leading to the top of one’s property are only a dream for most Appalachian landowners, whose steep inaccessible land can only provide sporadic timbering and hunting. 

Why do we need level land in Eastern Kentucky?  If we are to truly develop a long-term economic future there, useable land out of the floodplains is critical.  If it were not for coal, Appalachia would be an sparsely populated area.  It was shortly after the turn of the 19th Century that coal began building the many coal towns in Appalachia, bringing with it a newfound prosperity.

Reclamation efforts.  

 The coal industry does an excellent job on reclamation.  We have won numerous state and national reclamation awards.  Industry’s efforts over the years to encourage fish and wildlife has resulted in a resurgence of wildlife---a direct result of leaving open spaces, trees and shrubs that provide nourishment for wildlife and ponds that contain water year round.  There is more wildlife than ever in Kentucky, in part because of reclaimed coal lands.  And, it is on reclaimed land where mountain elk are now thriving. 

|Need for economic diversity in Eastern Kentucky.

The future of Eastern Kentucky has to be tied to economic diversity.  A mono-industry economy is not healthy for the long-term viability of a region.  Ideally, jobs that pay factory wages are the goal.  Higher wages insure that every household can sustain a decent standard of living.  Tourism has been touted by many as a viable alternative.  But a Lexington Herald-Leader editorial several years ago made a very eye-opening point that tourism is principally built on minimum wage jobs and that tourism alone is no bargain for a region. 

One major drawback facing Eastern Kentucky is the availability of level land out of the floodplain---something people in the rest of the state take for granted.  For an individual to create level land in mountainous terrain, this task is difficult and financially almost impossible. The responsible use of mountaintop mining creates level land---land that has the potential for many other uses.

Barring mountain top mining will increase the number of coal miners employed.

Such statements show little understanding of the economics of the coal industry and the physical act of mining.  For example, some seams which can be mountaintop mined cannot not be mined by using underground mining—the seams may be too thin or there may not be enough cover.  So, coal reserves in these circumstances may never be developed.  No development — no mining jobs.

Miners, rightfully so, are well-paid and typically have premium benefits packages.  Thus, laboris one of the major components of the cost of coal. Mountaintop mining makes miners very productive.  The more productive the miners, the cheaper the product can be sold and still allow the miners to retain high pay and good benefits packages.  If Kentucky miners do not mountaintop mine, does that mean Kentucky underground miners will be able to mine more?  No, it probably means more productive miners in Wyoming, who can surface mine coal much more cheaply than Kentucky underground miners, will have an increased advantage in moving their coal into eastern markets, driving Kentucky coal out.  No market —no mining jobs.

When mountaintop mining critics contend closing down mountain top mining will create more jobs for Kentucky miners, they may be right.  But, Kentucky miners will have to move to Wyoming to get those jobs.    


What are the country’s energy supplies?

How are these fuel sources used today to generate America’s electricity?  The answer might surprise you: 

 Coal             52%
Nuclear         20%
Natural gas   16%
Hydropower    7%
Oil                    3%
Renewals         2% (wind, solar, biomass and geothermal)   

In Kentucky, coal provides 97% of our electricity.

Bush’s energy plan.

The President’s energy plan predicts a growth of 1.8% a year over the next 20 years.  Conservation alone can nly reduce growth demand from 1.8% to 1.5% per year.  Conservation alone simply cannot work.  California arguably is a case in point. California has sanctioned no new power plant construction since 1980.  And planned conservation simply could not keep pace with California’s growing need for electricity.  But the blackouts that swept California did not need to occur.

For the last two decades, regulators have generally said “no” to efforts to expand our energy supply.  No new power plants. No new refineries.  No new drilling.  No new exploration or mining on public land.  That policy is finally catching up to us. We must take a realistic approach to our country’s long-term energy needs.  That will require making some hard choices.

Over the next 20 years, we will need from 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants, the equivalent of 60 to 90 new power plants a year.  Sounds like a lot, until you look closer.  Today, there are roughly 5,000 power plants in the U.S.  Kentucky has 113 power plants (58 coal-fired, 15 oil, 10 gas, 30 hydro).   Are one or two new power plants per state per year too much?  No—we must insure adequate capacity for temporary shut downs, maintenance, retiring of old plants, and, most importantly, for responsible growth.

With the projected 1.8% national yearly growth in demand, we must build more power plants regardless of the fuel source used---coal, nuclear, oil, gas, hydro, or renewables (wind, solar, biomass).   Each fuel source can be criticized—and each certainly has its flaws—but, to insure continued prosperity and national security, new power plants must be built.    

Five points that favor coal.

Abundance.  Coal is America’s most abundant fuel source.  We have a 250-year supply at current consumption rates. 

Affordability.  Coal costs $1.20 per million Btus (compared to natural gas at $5 to $6 per million Btus). 

Jobs.  Coal employs many more workers than any other energy source, especially here in Kentucky. 

Reliability.  Coal is American-made, not subject to unreliable weather conditions, price volatility or the whims of foreign suppliers.

Clean coal.  Coal can be burned cleanly using clean coal technology.  And the sooner we can retrofit clean coal technology onto our older power plants, the cleaner the air will become.

Coal will play an integral role in Bush’s national energy plan.  That role is to remain America’s silent workhorse, providing cheap, dependable electricity. 

Mixing Religion and Mining

Under most circumstances, we are of the opinion religion should not play a role in political debate.  Recently, however, we’ve learned some religious leaders are railing against mountaintop mining and, as we hear it, invoking the Almighty to bring an end to the mining method.

While these folks are certainly within their right to do so, it made us wonder, should we call for the same help to continue this mining practice, which is, after all, a temporary use of the land?  Mountaintop mining employs thousands of people and makes it possible for them to provide for their households, (see 1 Timothy 5:8, below).  It also can spur economic development, creating even more jobs in areas where people desperately need work.  The reclaimed flat land is and can be used for building factories, schools, recreational and tourist-based businesses, and housing in areas where flat land is a premium and land development costs very high. 

We, therefore, even though reluctant to inject them into the debate, enter this scriptural citations for reflection:

“Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  Isaiah 40:4-5, (New American Bible)


County Property Valuation Administrator (PVA) office comments on post-mining mountaintop mining property values

JUNE, 2003

Anti-mining activists are always railing that mountaintop mining decreases property values.  What do the professionals say about the level land created by mountaintop mining?  Below are comments from PVA officials in Eastern Kentucky counties.

Tim Robinson, Martin County:  “Of course, it’s just common sense that flat property is worth more than hillside, especially in a place like Eastern Kentucky where flat land is so scarce. With the flood plain issues, we’re running out of property in Martin County that people can actually use…  We don’t usually have a lot of comparables to go on for valuation changes because so much of the mountain top mined land that has been developed has been donated for the prison, the airport, and so forth.  But, for the one example that comes to mind, it was close to a four lane highway and had good black topped roads on it, so we did raise the valuation on the property.  It was just obviously worth more than a hillside piece of land.  Had it been off the beaten path, I would have valued it a bit lower, but still higher than hillside.”

Robert Justice, Pike County:  “We try to hold valuations down when we can for the people.  It’s situational.  A piece of flat property with access is probably worth more than flat property without access.  Flat property would be worth more than mountainsides.  It’s valued higher because it is more usable.”

Brenda Collins, Knott County: “Mountain top reclaimed land is worth more.  We assess a tract as “farm”, if its 10 acres or more, at $100 per acre… hillside at $200 per acre; rolling land at $300 per acre; and,  flat land, as a percentage of the whole tract, at $400 per acre.  Mined and reclaimed with good access would always be assessed as more valuable.  In one instance that comes to mind, we assessed a 23.127 acre reclaimed mountaintop mining site at $20,000.”

Debbie McKinley, Floyd County:  “Property valuation depends in Floyd County.  We have a different scale for different parts of the county, depending on location and sales comparables.  I can tell you the golf course (Stonecrest) housing tracts are selling for between $40,000 and $45,000.  That’s the most valuable building area in the county right now.” 

Alicia Wooten, Harlan County:  “We assess hillside land at farm value between $125 and $150 per acre if it’s over 10 acres.  There is just no level land in Harlan County, so anything that is flat or you can put a bulldozer on to make a flat place for a house or trailer is high.  It shocks us sometimes when we see what a small piece of flat property will sell for.  It can sell for as much as $20,000 per acre.”

Rick Rose, Letcher County: “We assess hillside land at $100 per acre on a farm value; that is if it is over 10 acres.  We have some reclaimed property near Jenkins the industrial authority bought from a mining company for $10,000 per acre for 300 acres.  Most of it is what I would call semi-flat.  There’s rolling parts to it, but they are developing it for business.  It’s not unusual to see a small tract of land, say five acres with maybe only a half acre flat and usable and the rest unusable hillside, sell for $10,000 to $12,000.” 

Irvin Allen, Breathitt County:  “Well, it’s a ‘duke’s mixture’. We try to make the values as reasonable as possible, especially for the small farmer or land owner.  Value literally depends on where it’s located and the accessibility of the property.  But, I would have to say that if it is a piece of flat property, the value would be from $400 per acre on up.  I know of a situation in the community of Haddocks where a land owner had 85 acres of nice reclaimed land.  Some folks wanted to buy it for a power plant location.  He turned down $1 million for the 85 acres.  So, that gives an indication of the value of a nice piece of flat land.”     

Geraldine Jeffers, Bell County:  “Valuation would pretty much even out at $400 to $500 in a sale.  Now, the Regional Industrial Board purchased a 500 acre piece of reclaimed mining property here in Bell County for use as an industrial park.”  The industrial board paid $828,000 for the 500 acre tract ($1,656 per acre).  Both federal and state authorities have set aside money to build an access roadway to and through the property.   

Landowners benefit from their property being mined.

It would be safe to say that a typical surface operation would remove several coal seams totaling around 5 feet of coal.  This is 8,100 tons per acre. 

The mineral owner (individual, family, land-holding company) typically gets 10% of the selling price.  Older contracts sell for an average price of $30, which yields $3 per ton, or $24,300 per acre for the mineral.  Under the newer contracts, coal is selling for $50 per ton, which yields $5 per ton, or $40,500 per acre for the mineral.

The surface owner, if different from the mineral owner, is typically paid 50 cents per ton for the right to use the surface (5 to 8 years).  This could yield $4,050 per acre for land originally valued at $300 per acre.  Quite a profit, especially considering that the surface owner will be left with level land, a wide access road to the top of the mountain, and ponds.  His reclaimed land will clearly be more valuable after mining than before.