how does mountaintop removal affect the environment

How Does Mountaintop Removal Affect the Environment? What Research Say About MTR

Last Updated on August 27, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Mountaintop removal mining, also known as mountaintop removal (MTR), is a mining technique that involves clear-cutting forests, using explosives to blow the tops off of mountains, and dumping waste into neighboring valleys to access coal seams.

This hazardous process is catastrophic for the environment and surrounding communities.

Keep reading to learn about the many ways MTR harms ecosystems, destroys biodiversity, contaminates water, and threatens human health.

How Does Mountaintop Removal Affect the Environment?

How Does Mountaintop Removal Affect the Environment?

Mountaintop removal mining has overwhelmingly negative effects on the environment, harming ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health through water and air pollution.

Key Points

  • Over 2,000 miles of vital headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia.
  • Air pollution from MTR mining creates dangerous fine particulate matter that causes respiratory issues.
  • MTR sites have directly impacted over 1 million acres of forest, contributing to deforestation.

What is Mountaintop Removal Mining?

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining specifically used to access coal seams in the Appalachian Mountains.

It involves deforesting areas and using explosives to blow the tops off mountains to reach coal seams.

The excess rock and soil, known as overburden, is then pushed into nearby valleys, burying streams and creating so-called “valley fills.”

How Does MTR Impact Water Quality in Nearby Streams?

When mining waste and debris are dumped into valleys and streams, it severely damages water quality both in those buried streams and downstream.

Studies have shown increased levels of harmful minerals such as selenium and sulfates, as well as electrical conductivity, a measure of water pollution.

One study found an increase in electrical conductivity of up to 300% downstream from MTR sites.

What About the Impact on Aquatic Ecosystems?

The dumping of mining debris has smothered nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams across central Appalachia.

When streams are buried by mining waste, it destroys aquatic ecosystems and causes the loss of biodiversity.

Species that are especially sensitive to pollution decline or disappear entirely from impacted waters.

Does MTR Pollute the Air?

Yes, MTR sites generate significant air pollution since they involve extensive blasting and digging.

The dust kicked up by these activities contains particulate matter that can travel for miles and cause respiratory issues in downwind communities.

Silica dust is especially concerning, as it causes lung cancer and other diseases.

How Widespread are MTR Sites in Appalachia?

As of 2021, MTR had impacted over 1 million acres across central Appalachia, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The number of MTR sites increased rapidly between 1985-2001, when regulations were more lax.

Though stricter regulations have slowed the number of new MTR operations, existing mines continue to expand.

What Health Risks Does MTR Pose to Nearby Communities?

People living near MTR sites are at risk of exposure to hazardous dust, contaminated water, and increased flooding.

Studies link MTR to increased cancer rates, birth defects, and cardiovascular disease in surrounding populations.

Drinking contaminated groundwater or coming into contact with polluted streams also poses health risks.

How Does Deforestation from MTR Affect the Landscape?

MTR involves total deforestation of mining sites, obliterating forests, and drastically altering landscapes.

Researchers used satellite data to determine that MTR had directly impacted over 1.4 million acres of forest between 1985-2015.

The loss of vegetative cover increases erosion and the risk of landslides.

Does MTR Impact Climate Change?

Yes, scientists have found that the deforestation caused by MTR results in a net increase in carbon in the atmosphere.

Loss of forests means less carbon sequestration.

Additionally, the waste rock unearthed by MTR exposes new carbon sources to the air.

What Can Be Done to Better Regulate MTR?

More stringent regulations are needed to protect communities and ecosystems from MTR.

Better monitoring of dust and water pollution must be implemented, as well as increased transparency about the impacts.

Companies should be held financially accountable for health and environmental damages.

The ultimate goal should be a transition away from coal to cleaner energy sources.

How are Citizens and Groups Fighting Back?

Community members and groups like Appalachian Voices are advocating against new MTR permits and for better protection from pollution.

Lawsuits have also forced stricter regulations and improved monitoring.

Concerned citizens can join these efforts by voting for anti-MTR candidates and pushing for legislation that protects land, air, and water from mining pollution.

The Takeaways

MTR is a deprecated form of mining that devastates ecosystems, exposes communities to toxins, and exacerbates climate change.

Transitioning to a clean energy economy is key to preventing further environmental injustice and harm.

Concerned citizens should support anti-MTR advocates in Appalachia.


What is the process of mountaintop removal mining?

Mountaintop removal mining uses explosives to blast away mountaintops to expose underlying coal seams. The debris is dumped into neighboring valleys and streams.

What health effects are linked to mountaintop removal mining?

Studies have found increased rates of cancer, birth defects, and cardiovascular disease in populations living near MTR sites.

How long does mountaintop removal mining impact the environment?

Environmental effects like deforestation and buried headwater streams cause permanent damage that lasts well beyond the active life of the mine.

What makes mountaintop removal mining so damaging?

The extensive blasting, deforestation, dumping of debris into streams, and air pollution caused by MTR mining lead to its widespread environmental impacts.

The team at GreenChiCafe cares deeply about protecting ecosystems and mitigating climate change. Check out our website for more information on these important environmental topics.

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