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Postcard from Coal Country: Above, a mountaintop removal operation near Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman,

Tearing Up Appalachia

Big Coal fouls more than just the air—while the Bush administration looks the other way

By Brian Vanneman

Freda Williams’ rural West Virginia home is located less than a mile downhill from the Brushy Fork dam spanning the Clearfork Creek Valley. Unlike most other dams, this one does not block a river or generate electric power. Brushy Fork holds eight billion gallons of coal sludge—a thick, black, tar-like liquid that contains heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, and is the byproduct of the coal mining that takes place throughout southern West Virginia.

Over the past several years, coal’s unhealthy impact on America’s air and water has received much attention from the Sierra Club and the mainstream media. Coal-fired power plants emit 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide—the primary cause of global warming—and mercury—a hazardous pollutant estimated to endanger the healthy development of more than 600,000 children born every year in the United States. Yet, as reported by everyone from The New York Times to Time magazine, the Bush administration has done everything in its power to help Big Coal.

But coal is not only a health hazard once burned. As Freda Williams and others in the coal-producing areas of Appalachia know, the new generation of coal mining techniques threatens its neighbors with sludge dam breaks, flooding, unsafe tap water, and the loss of the forested ridges and valleys that have made the region home for generations.

In coal mining parlance, the barrier near Williams’ home is the Brushy Creek "impoundment." Williams prefers the more direct "slurry dam." The dam is one of several hundred in the region that are the product of a new and more environmentally damaging form of mining that has become prevalent in the coal industry since the 1980s: mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is one industry term that is just what it sounds like. Mining companies, like Brushy Fork operators Marfork Coal and its parent company Massey Energy, blow off the tops and sides of mountains to get at the coal buried underneath. Where "deep mining," using deep shafts and many laborers, was the norm, the vastly increased power of mining machines now makes it possible to dig and sort through tons of soil already loosened by explosives. Topsoil and trees are thrown over the sides of the denuded mountains into adjacent stream beds and become "valley fill," while the once forested ridges are transformed into terraced moonscapes. Coal is separated from the soil using a chemical process, and the unwanted slurry—a combination of chemicals, soil, water, and coal remnants—is then dumped into impoundments.

In October 2000, an impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, broke and released a 300-million-gallon flood of coal slurry, causing greater damage than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989; the EPA called it the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the eastern United States. Miraculously, no lives were lost—but fish and wildlife were killed, homes damaged, and the drinking water in many affected towns is still considered unsafe due to high levels of mercury and arsenic.

Shortly after the Martin County spill, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) began an investigation into the conditions surrounding the incident, and Massey Energy, the impoundment’s operator. Under the leadership of Jack Spadaro, a MSHA expert with 30 years of experience, the investigation was shaping up to be a hard-nosed critique of Massey’s failure to maintain a safe facility.

But when the Bush administration arrived in Washington, things changed quickly. David Lauriski, a former executive at Energy West Mining, became the new head of MSHA. He appointed a new lead investigator to the Martin County team, which was encouraged to sign a gentle reprimand that found Massey at fault on two criminal counts rather than the eight that Spadaro sought. Spadaro refused to put his signature on the report and quit the investigation team.

Despite clashes with his new superiors, Spadaro stuck it out at MSHA. But in the summer of 2003, agency managers put him on administrative leave, a move that suggested his job termination was imminent. The decision was ostensibly made because of several minor charges including overuse of his agency credit card and allowing a non-employee to spend several days in a government dorm.

Spadaro’s conflict with MSHA management is one of several recent events that have served as a lightning rod for the energy of Sierra Club organizers, volunteers, and community members.

"Locals have really appreciated the our commitment to mining issues," says Anna Sale, a field organizer who began working for the Club in Charleston last summer. Another organizer, Bill Price, works under the auspices of the Club’s Environmental Justice program to build bridges with community groups, and empower them to create change.

After learning about Spadaro’s firing, Sale, Price, and Club volunteers organized campaigns to demand his reinstatement. They encouraged community members to write letters to MSHA and sought publicity from local and national media outlets. When CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a damning report on the government’s conduct in April, they filmed Price speaking at a Charleston rally.

The Sierra Club’s field representatives in the “mountain state”: Bill Price and Anna Sale.

Spadaro’s ouster and the susequent coverup is widely perceived to be politically motivated and beneficial for Massey Energy in particular and the coal industry in general. While the state of Kentucky fined Massey for $3.25 million, the company’s federal fines were ultimately reduced to $5,600. The Bush administration and its appointees in the mining safety administration are indebted and linked to the coal industry. For example, James "Buck" Harless, a Massey board member, raised $275,000 for the Bush campaign in 2000, while the industry as a whole gave $2.7 million.

Sale feels a degree of satisfaction from the Club’s work. Spadaro is appealing his supervisors’ decision to place him on leave. "And the Labor Department knows people are watching," says Sale.

Throughout the winter, the Club’s West Virginia organizers turned their focus to stopping another behind-the-scenes Bush administration bureaucratic maneuver. The Club’s target was an Interior Department proposal to change the "stream buffer zone rule." The 1983 rule restricts coal companies from depositing valley fill—the soil and rock displaced by leveled mountaintops—in adjacent valleys. Valley fill does not contain heavy metals and chemicals in the same concentration as slurry, but it does bury watersheds, contaminate rivers and water supplies, and allow mountaintop removal to continue unchecked.

"Massey and other coal companies had been disregarding the rule for years," says Sale. "But they wanted the law to be struck from the books in order to decisively end the legal basis for protests against mountaintop removal and valley fill."

By January 6, when the stream buffer zone public comment period was initially scheduled to end, the government had received 80,000 comments demanding that the rule continue to protect Appalachian streams. But the very next day, Interior published a new draft of the stream buffer zone rule. "I doubt very much that they read all those comments," says Sale. The new draft asks mining companies to limit their impact on fish and wildlife in stream valleys "to the extent possible." As Sierra Club Executive director Carl Pope points out, "there is no scientific way to monitor a ‘to the extent possible’ provision."

Despite mountaintop removal’s effect on Appalachia, Club representative Price offers a tempered view of coal’s future in the region. It has provided an economic base for the region for generations, but mountaintop removal employs far fewer workers than deep mining. "The bottom line is we must demand that mining be done in a responsible manner," he says. "That means no more mountaintop removal. Then we must transition to a more diversified economy that includes more small business, different energy sources, and tourism. And coal actually hurts that process, because who wants to vacation in a state where a quarter of the mountains are lopped off? Who wants to to do business in a place where you can’t drink the water?"

To find out more about mountaintop removal mining, and what you can do to stop it, visit

The Sierra Club is pleased to be a major sponsor of The Appalachians: America’s First and Last Frontier, a documentary that explores the history, music, culture, and landscape of the region. It will air on PBS this Fall—check your local listings for times, or visit

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