Cumberland Mountain Area Scarred by Strip Mining

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Cumberland Mountain Area Scarred by Strip Mining


By: Bob Gomel

Date: January 1, 1967

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Bob Gomel's photographs of notable individuals were frequently featured in Life magazine in the 1960s. This photograph was taken at the site of a coal mine in the Cumberland region of the Appalachian Mountains in 1967.


The Cumberland Mountains are a southeastern portion of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. The Cumberlands include parts of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee and constitute part of the Appalachian Coal Field, the largest bituminous coal deposit in the world. Coal has been mined in the Cumberlands and elsewhere in the Appalachians for over two hundred years, but until the 1940s was usually mined using subsurface or tunnel mining. After World War II (1938–1941), the large earthmoving machines necessary for strip mining became available. Strip mining increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, as did organized political opposition to the practice.

Strip mining produces many more tons of coal per worker-hour than does tunnel mining and therefore is more profitable. However, it is also more destructive. In strip mining, the landscape is literally stripped away—including trees and soil—in order to access a layer of coal beneath. In the language of strip mining, a landscape overlying coal is termed "overburden." Once the overburden is removed using giant shovels that hoist up to 200 tons at a bite, the coal is trucked away to be burned, for the most part, in electricitygenerating plants. Coal, most of it strip-mined, supplies about half of U.S. electricity.

In the photograph, a small piece of overburden has been left intact, showing how much of a layer has been removed. In this case the overburden layer was shallow—perhaps only ten or twenty feet—and the coal layer (the dark, lower two thirds of the mesa seen here) about two or three times as thick.

Strip mining in the Appalachian region was for many years facilitated by a legal instrument called the "broad-form deed." At the beginning of the twentieth century, coal companies began buying mineral rights from rural landowners using broad-form deeds. These contracts turned over ownership of the coal underlying the seller's land and, crucially, gave the owner of the coal the right to do anything necessary to get at the coal. Also, the landowner remained responsible for all property taxes. By 1930, coal companies held broad-form deed rights to over 70 percent of the land in some rural towns, as for example the village of Scotts Run, West Virginia. When strip-mining began decades later, the mining company's access rights were held to extend to complete destruction of whatever happened to be on top of the coal—trees, soil, fields, streams, houses. Land on which a coal company held a broad-form deed was thus fair game for strip mining, without further compensation or any right of refusal. In 1987, the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the broad-form deed unconstitutional.

Eventually, reclamation procedures such as soil restoration and tree-planting were mandated by laws such as West Virginia's 1967 Surface Mine Reclamation Act and the federal Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977. However, such laws have often been ignored or skirted by mine operators. Reclamation is at best only partially effective in restoring ecosystems annihilated in the first stage of the strip-mining process.



See primary source image.


Strip mining's impact on the environment is at least twofold. First, it involves the complete destruction of the area to be mined. Second, the overburden itself must be moved aside to get at the coal, a process which uses even more land and creates other problems as well. Where steep slopes are adjacent to the stripped area, this material can cascade or avalanche downslope into valleys and streams.

Water pollution is also a common environmental side effect of strip mining. The mineral iron pyrite (FeS2) is usually part of the shale layer that is pushed aside by strip mining as tailings or waste; when exposed to weathering, this mineral yields sulfur, producing sulfuric acid. This acid turns streams a reddish color and can kill whatever is living in them.

In the mid and late 1990s, a form of strip mining known as mountaintop removal came into much wider use. Mountaintop removal allows the mining of much more deeply buried layers of coal than traditional strip mining. Despite its name, this procedure involves not only the removal of the top of a mountain, but of most of it. The coal layer in the photograph was only a few yards below the surface: in contrast, mountaintop removal allows access to coal as far as 1,000 feet below the surface. Mountaintop removal generally entails the removal of the mountain being mined, as well as the filling in of adjacent valleys with the bulk of the former mountain. The 1977 federal Surface Mining and Reclamation Act mandates that mining companies restore stripped land so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining", which includes restoring the land to its "approximate original contour", but according to a 1998 Charleston Gazette investigation "these rules are routinely skirted by dozens of huge mountaintop-removal strip mines."


Web sites

Charleston Gazette. "Mining the Mountains." 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM). Home page. 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining: Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement." May 23, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).