Everyone is aware of the dangers of black lung and cave-ins, but the coal has to be brought out at any cost. The long-suffering people in these company towns buried deep in the folded mountains and valleys of the Appalachians are the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, like most legends, the realities of modern coal mining have relegated these people to the realm of fiction. Thanks to mining methods such as Mountain Top Removal (MTR), the coal industry barely needs people at all anymore.
MTR became a popular method of mining coal in the 1970’s. Traditional deep shaft mining using lots of skilled labor and traditional techniques had been growing increasingly expensive due to increasing labor costs and safety regulations. Large coal companies began to use a technique commonly called “strip mining”, where the overburden covering the coal seams was entirely removed. This method allowed for the extraction of large amounts of coal using machinery instead of human labor. This is more economical for the company but provides fewer jobs for the people most affected by the mining. MTR is much like strip mining except it happens on a massive scale. The nature of this type of mining has lead to devastating consequences for the environment, economy and society surrounding these mines.
MTR in the Appalachian region, centering on the states of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky is largely a product of the geology of the area. Through geologic time, the Appalachian Mountains have been folded and compressed. Coal seams often follow the general topography of the surrounding mountains. Traditional methods of mining involved an angled shaft that penetrated overlying resistant rock in an effort to get at the coal seam. In MTR, the entire top of a ridge is blasted away, exposing the seam. The seam is then worked from top to bottom and down slope using massive dragline and excavation machinery.