As the destructive coal mining process known as mountaintop removal ebbs in Appalachia, it is leaving behind what amounts to its own grim field of tombstones: A grossly disfigured landscape pocked with decapitated mountains standing flat as mesas and inhospitable to forest restoration.
The blight is more than vertical, for millions of tons of slag waste have been bulldozed down into the surrounding countryside for more than 40 years. The rubble has clogged countless streams and waterways and devastated the Appalachian environment with pollutants, rerouting rain torrents through homes and hamlets below.
The destruction, shocking to anyone flying across the scarred mountain remains, has now been measured in all three dimensions in a survey by researchers at Duke University. It presents a timely reminder of what has been lost to King Coal’s furious bulldozing swaths across the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
Drastic changes to the landscape have left central Appalachian regions in the study’s focus area 40 percent flatter after the bulldozers moved on, reducing elevations at the top while raising them at ground level by up to 10 feet because of the layers of accumulated slag.
“The physical effects of mountaintop mining are much more similar to volcanic eruptions where the entire landscape is fractured, deepened and decoupled from prior landscape evolution trajectories, effectively resetting the clock on landscape and ecosystem co-evolution,” the report declares after sampling one West Virginia waste field laden with enough rubble to bury Manhattan Island.
The report holds little hope of returning to the verdant Appalachian past, where underground mining at least left the lofty horizon and snug hamlets undisturbed.
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