European coal also comes from the USA, where coal is mined in the Appalachian Mountains, in the West, and the Mid-West of the country. One particularly destructive form of coal mining practised in the USA is Mountaintop removal (MTR). MTR involves the blasting away – with explosives – of whole mountain summits. Up to 120 metres of the mountain are removed to expose underlying coal seams. Afterwards, digging machines remove the overburden and dump it in nearby valleys.
MTR is mainly used in the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern USA, especially in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Appalachians belong to one of the oldest mountain regions of the world. Their extensive mixed forest has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of the temperate climate zones. Before European colonisation, the region was inhabited by various indigenous communities, such as the Cherokee Nation.
Since the beginning of MTR in the 1970s, coal corporations have blasted away over 500 mountain tops. Nearly 2,000 miles of valleys and their river courses have been buried. Coal mining has deeply transformed the landscape of the region.
The mining areas are also crucial water reserves for nearby villages and millions of people. The overburden – the soil that is being dug up and then dumped in valleys – releases substances such as selenium, mercury, and arsenic into rivers and groundwater. The chemicals used for cleaning the coal before it is being burnt add to the contamination of the water. For people in the region, it’s an everyday reality that a brown, poisonous brew comes out of their taps – instead of drinking water.
“If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war,” said Paula Swearengin from West Virginia, who ran – unsuccessfully – for a seat in a Senate in 2018, “But a company can do it”. Contaminated water and air pollution caused by coal dust lead to severe health impacts on the local population. Several studies show that there is an increased risk of cancer and kidney illnesses. Pregnant women who live close to an MTR mine have a 180 percent higher chance to give birth to a child with heart defects (compared to a 30 percent higher chance if they smoke).
Several groups are fighting against MTR, with public protests, court cases, and direct actions. It’s not an easy struggle. Coal mining is deeply ingrained in the history and identity of people in Appalachia – a region that is already marginalised and impoverished. The prospect of coal corporations withdrawing from the area, leaving behind an even weaker economy and fewer jobs, scares people.
The “Friends of Coal” association, who call themselves a group of volunteers, fly the flag of coal corporations. They visit schools and explain to young people why they should be proud to live in Coal Country. Again and again, anti-coal activists are threatened or physically attacked, according to reports of the grassroots group, RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountains’ and People’s Survival). People in RAMPS know that it takes more than protests to fight coal. They are committed to long-term support of the affected communities and also organise projects with young people or drive water tanks to households.
Imports from the USA
Coal from the USA also ends up in European power plants. Europe imported 35 million tonnes of hard coal from the USA in 2018. The German energy corporation RWE is co-owner of Blackhawk Mining LLC, the biggest producer of hard coal from MTR mining in the USA. Protests by environmental organisations such as Keeper of the Mountains and Urgewald have an impact. In 2016, Deutsche Bank announced they would no longer give loans to corporations involved in MTR. With campaigns and sit-ins, Earth Quaker Action Team (EQUAT) forced the American Bank PNC to stop financing MTR projects. Several other investors have pulled out of MTR business, too. It is worth keeping up political pressure and international solidarity.