As surface mining has grown in Appalachia’s two largest coal-producing states, it has become heavily concentrated in small corners of West Virginia and Kentucky, according to a new government report.
Nearly half the West Virginia acreage covered by surface mining permits in 2008 was in Boone, Logan and Mingo counties, according to the Government Accountability Office report. In 1990, the trio of southern West Virginia counties had about one-third of the permitted acreage.
Across the border in eastern Kentucky, the GAO found 44 percent of permitted acres in Pike, Perry and Knott counties, up from 28 percent in 1990.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich shrugged off the report’s conclusions that surface mining is heavily concentrated.
“We go where the coal is,” he said.
Over the 18 years covered in the report, opposition to one surface mining technique — mountaintop removal — has grown as well. Environmental groups that oppose mountaintop removal have begun expanding that opposition to surface mining in general in the region, arguing that it’s too damaging to allow. Opponents object to the practice of filling valleys and burying intermittent streams with rock and other material known as excess spoil.
“What this report does is document the massive impacts of surface mining in Appalachia,” said Sierra Club spokesman Ed Hopkins. “One statistic really drives that point home and that is from January 2000 through July of 2008, West Virginia and Kentucky approved nearly 2,000 fills to store at least 4.85 billion cubic yards of excess spoil. That is a huge figure.”
The report points out that, at least through last year, surface mining was growing steadily at a 2.2 percent clip in Kentucky and a 1.7 percent pace in West Virginia.
Moreover, the report shows most of that growth occurring in a tiny fraction of the region. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the open permits in West Virginia were in Boone County, while 23 percent of Kentucky’s were in Pike County.
“It’s really massive and it’s happening in relatively small areas,” Hopkins said.
But Popovich said the report itself raises questions about the statistics, noting that West Virginia estimates one-quarter of the land included in surface mining permits is never disturbed. Likewise the report notes that mine operators regularly build fewer, smaller fills than allowed.
“Let’s don’t mistake acreage under permit for actual dirt being turned over,” Popovich said. “Our critics, perhaps, are reading more into the implications there than are warranted by the science.”