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MTR Forum Addresses Restoration

On March 13, The Appalachian Center continued its semester-long focus on the effects of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) on the Appalachia region with a public information session. The night’s forum welcomed speakers Dr. Richard Sweigard, a professor and chair of mining engineering at the University of Kentucky, and Patrick Angel, an employee of Office of Surface Mining (OSM), to weigh in on current issues surrounding MTR and methods of restoration.

Mountaintop removal site

Mountaintop Removal continues to be a fiercely debated issue among mining supporters and environmentalists. Both Sweigard and Angel, discussed the history of mountaintop removal and government actions concerning the practice to provide a context for their discussions.

In 1977, in an effort to ease tensions over MTR, the United States Department of the Interior established the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation (OSM) to oversee changes in mining policy. In that same year, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which called for changes in the processes of restoration at mine sites and for current mine operators reduce surface mining related damage.

Since SMCRA’s introduction, OSM has cleaned up abandoned mine sites that once threatened human safety and environmental quality, but, as the forum's speakers suggested, much work is left to be done.

In his opening statement, Sweigard addressed his own bias towards mountaintop removal, saying, “Both natural renewable and non-renewable resources were put here for us to use, but we should use them wisely.”

According to Sweigard, a recent federal study found that no more than 6.8% of Appalachia has been or could be affected by MTR. Additionally, Sweigard emphasized that in some cases, MTR may be the only option to remove coal from much of the Appalachian region. However, he also acknowledged the detrimental effects of this practice on intermittent and ephemeral streams due to spoil, a slush formed from rocks, soil and debris created by mountaintop removal.

Tammy Horn, a professor, lobbyist and speaker on MTR, elaborated on why some companies choose to use MTR over other mining techniques, saying, “MTR influences conventional mining methods because MTR tends to be cheaper, safer and more efficient. Thus, deep surface miners tend to cut corners when safety is concerned in order to meet quotas.”

Although, mountaintop removal poses dangers both to humans and the environment, Sweigard is confident in the reclamation work being done to improve conditions on mining valley ridges. He attributes this success to the Golf Drainage Systems, a set of artificial ditches used to divert rain water from the slopping mining ridges. The drainage system permits grass and trees to flourish on the steep ridges. Initial pictures of the valley ridges resembled that of a golfing green.

The forum's other featured guest, Patrick Angel, agrees with Sweigard on the detrimental affects of MTR, but disagrees on what reclamation techniques are most effective. Angel believes reclamation of the land used for MTR as is dependent on the soil. The more compact the soil is at the site, the less likely it is that trees and other vegetation will flourish compared to loosely tilled soil, he claims.

Holding three slices of wood taken from trees grown in various grades of soil, Angel demonstrated his point by comparing their sizes to charts exhibiting various types of soil found at MTR sites. He believes that tree seedlings are more valuable than grasses in reestablishing vegetation on valley ridges. Showing a picture of land prior to the 1977 act and after, Angel points out the lush forest faded into grassland.

“Previously, those laws had been interpreted by civil engineers who wanted to convert strip-mined land for commercial purposes,” said Horn. “But forests are just as valuable, if not more so, and I think both men see this new direction of reforestation as a good thing.”

The differing views presented at the form indicate that mountaintop removal remains a political and environmental battleground. For more information on other upcoming MTR events, visit the Appalachian Center's Web site.

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