Appalachia is a term used to describe a cultural region in the eastern United States which stretches from the Southern Tier of New York state to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
While the geographical Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in the U.S. state of Alabama, the cultural region of Appalachia typically refers only to the central and southern portions of the range. As of 2021, the region was home to approximately 26.3 million people.
In 2019, the overall Appalachian Region produced 193 million short tons of coal – 27 percent of the nation’s coal. This is down from 70 percent in the 1970s, according to the consulting group T.R. Rose Associates. Due to cheaper natural gas and to regulations that have increased the cost of burning coal for electric power generators, the region's coal production has largely been in decline since the early 2000s. Between 2001 and 2021, it fell by 64 percent. Although this downturn is forecast to temporarily increase as economies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, coal production is expected to gradually decline again after 2024.
While endowed with abundant natural resources, Appalachia has long struggled with poverty. In the early 20th century, large-scale logging and coal mining firms brought wage-paying jobs and modern amenities to Appalachia, but by the 1960s it was clear that the wealth had not spread to the residents. Only 14 of the 423 counties in Appalachia are equal to or better than the national average on indicators like per-capita income, poverty, and unemployment rates, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Poverty remains the worst in central Appalachia, including eastern Kentucky. Of the 82 counties classified by the ARC as “distressed” in fiscal year 2023, 36 are in eastern Kentucky. In these areas, poverty rates are double the national average, according to the AP Press.
The region once produced two-thirds of the nation's coal. As of 2010, however, the mining industry employs just 2% of the Appalachian workforce. The region's vast coalfield covers 63,000 square miles (160,000 km2) between northern Pennsylvania and central Alabama, mostly along the Cumberland Plateau and Allegheny Plateau regions. Most mining activity has been concentrated in Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania, with smaller operations in Tennessee and Alabama. The Pittsburgh coal seam has produced 13 billion tons of coal since the early 19th century. There are over 60 major coal seams in West Virginia, and over 80 in Eastern Kentucky. Most of the coal mined is bituminous coal, although significant anthracite deposits exist on the fringe of the region in central Pennsylvania. About two-thirds of Appalachia's coal is produced by underground mining, the rest by surface mining.
Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, is a highly controversial mining practice in central Appalachia due to its negative impacts on the environment. It is increasingly being used to replace underground mining to extract coal from the Appalachian Mountain regions of eastern Kentucky, southwest West Virgina, southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee. The process involves using explosives to remove up to 1,000 vertical feet of rock to reach the coal seams. The resulting debris is often scraped into the adjacent valleys in what is called a valley fill. 
Controversy over the practice stems from the extreme topological, ecological and hydrological changes that the mining site and surrounding areas undergo, as well as from the storage of the toxic coal waste material generated from the mining and processing of the coal.
Regional coal production declines
The U.S. Department of Energy projects that by 2015, the amount of coal mined in Appalachia will be just half of what it was in 2008: production is expected to drop to 112 million tons by 2015, compared to 234 million tons mined in 2008. The Energy Information Administration said in a 2011 outlook statement that the region's coal is "extensively mined" and its higher-cost coal will slowly be "supplanted by lower cost coal from other supply regions."
"The seams of coal that are left in this area are harder and harder to mine, and they're thinner and thinner and thinner," said Leonard Fleming, a retired Kentucky miner and union leader in Letcher County who worked in the industry for 32 years. The thinner seams make it less cost-effective for a coal operator to send miners underground. In 2010, Arch Coal told investors that the region's coal "is in secular decline – faced with depleting reserves and significant regulatory hurdles."
The projections of steep regional production declines also mirror those in West Virginia University’s “Consensus Coal Production Forecast,” published by the University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research
While coal companies and supporters point to the Obama Administration and EPA regulations for the decline, hiring in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia doubled at surface mines over the last decade, yet overall production fell by 25 percent there in all mines under and above ground, suggesting there is just less quality coal available. Production dropped in Central Appalachia's underground and surface mines to 196 million tons in 2009 from 261 million in 2000 – a 25 percent decline.
2009 study finds health coasts of coal outweigh economic benefits
The 2009 study, Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost, by West Virginia University professor Michael Hendryx and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, reports that coal mining in Appalachia costs five times more in premature deaths than the industry provides in jobs, taxes, and other economic benefits. Hendryx and Ahern compared age-adjusted mortality rates and socioeconomic conditions across Appalachian counties with varying amounts of coal mining, and with other counties in the nation. They converted the mortality figures to the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) estimates, and then compared that to accepted numbers for the economic benefits of the coal industry. Using these methods, the study found that the coal industry creates about $8 billion per year in economic benefits for the Appalachia region, but even using conservative estimates, the cost of premature deaths attributable to coal mining is valued at approximately $42 billion. The authors recommend that politicians seek other means for improving the economy and quality of life of Appalachia, in such areas as renewable energy, sustainable timber, small-scale agriculture, and ecosystem restoration. The study is published in the July-August 2009 issue of Public Health Reports, the peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Public Health Service.
In a 2010 report looking at the relationship between income and coal in Appalachia, author Dr. Michael Hendryx found that counties in West Virginia and Kentucky that engage in coal mining have higher poverty rates than those that do not, based on data from the 2000 US Census: 21.3% in coal mining areas, versus 14.3% in non-coal mining areas of the states, and 13.5% in the rest of the Appalachian region. The differences are statistically significant. In addition, the coal mining communities also have higher levels of unemployment, and lower levels of income and high school and college education. The author also notes that the number of jobs the coal mining industry provides for WV and KY is declining: in 1985, the number of coal mining jobs in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia was 67,757, but by 2007 the figure had declined to 34,155, due to increases in mechanization and mountaintop removal mining, which requires fewer workers. The author also ties the poverty rate to significant differences in age-adjusted death rates per 100,000 people based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data for the years 1997-2005: 1,067 in coal mining areas of WV and KY, versus 976 in non-coal mining areas of the states, and 948 in the rest of Appalachia. To address these disparities, the author recommends that coal severance taxes go directly to coal mining communities for jobs and education programs.
2010 report calls for economic diversification
A January 2010 Downstream Strategies report, "The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification" calls for Appalachia's state and local leaders to "support new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy" to avoid the region being too reliant on coal, since "coal production in Central Appalachia is on the decline, and this decline will likely continue in the coming decades."
2011 report ranks Kentucky district last in several indicators of well-being
Of the 435 Congressional districts, Congressman Hal Rogers’ district (KY-05) is highest in mountaintop removal and stream damages by the coal industry, and simultaneously last in many indicators of health, based upon a 2011 American Human Development Project study, "The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009". The report is modeled on the United Nations Development Programme’s global Human Development Report.
According to the report, out of the 435 congressional districts in the United States, district 05 ranks:
- 435th in life expectancy (last)
- 435th in physical health (last)
- 435th in overall well-being (last)
- 435th in emotional health (last)
2011 study: Health disparities in MTR areas
A 2011 study in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health by the West Virginia University School of Medicine noted disparities in health as a result of coal mining in Appalachian communities, especially concentrated in mountaintop mining areas. Those areas have the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining. The measure of health-related quality of life used in this study is a four question population-based measure developed by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Using the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone-based, random survey, residents in four central Appalachian states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia – were asked questions about how many poor mental and physical health days they experienced in the previous 30 days.
Co-author of the study Keith Zullig, Ph.D. said: “Self-rated health and health-related quality of life were significantly reduced among residents of mountaintop mining communities in the unadjusted and adjusted models. Mountaintop mining county residents experience, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than do the other populations. That’s approximately 1,404 days, or almost four years, of an average American lifetime. When mountaintop mining and other coal mining counties were not separated in a previous study, there were 462 reduced health-related quality of life days across an average American life.”
2011 study: Increased birth defects
In a 2011 Environmental Research journal study, "The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003" investigators reported that children born in counties home to mountaintop coal mines had a 26% higher risk of suffering birth defects, compared to ones born in non-mining regions. (Nationwide, about 1 in 33 babies suffer a birth defect, the leading cause of infant deaths.)
A number of studies had found health risks associated with coal mining regions including low birth weight. Lead researcher Melissa Ahern, a health economist at Washington State University, and colleagues decided to look for health effects on infants across four states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia) where mountaintop removal mining occurs. Looking at the 1,889,071 births in those states from 1996 to 2003, the researchers first found birth defects were higher in six of seven categories (including heart, lung and gastrointestinal birth defects) in mountaintop mining counties compared to elsewhere. According to the study: "Rates for any anomaly were approximately 235 per 10,000 live births in the mountaintop mining area versus 144 per 10,000 live births in the non-mining area."
Since poverty has also been linked to birth defects, the researchers controlled for social factors, such as smoking, drinking, mother's education, race and other poverty-related factors, and the team found the effect was still statistically significant, leading to the 26% higher risk of birth defects in the mountaintop mining counties.
According to Ahern: "Circulatory and respiratory effects really stood out." The study stated that birth defect rate seemed to increase over time and in regions with more mountaintop removal.
2011 study: Increased cancer rates
Among the 1.2 million American citizens living in mountaintop removal mining counties in central Appalachia, an additional 60,000 cases of cancer are directly linked to mountaintop removal, according to the study, "Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia with and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining" published in July 2011 in the Journal of Community Health: The Publication for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Led by West Virginia University researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx, the study was a door to door survey of 769 adults in Boone County, West Virginia in the spring of 2011, which gathered person-level health data from communities directly impacted by mountaintop mining, and compared it to communities without mining. The researchers found that the cancer rate was twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining compared to a non-mining control community. The correlation held after controlling for age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, and family cancer history.
Massey buys out town in West Virginia
According to a an April 12, 2011 article in The New York Times, after engaging in heavy coal mining around the city of Lindytown, West Virginia, Massey bought many properties from town residents. Massey suggested it was a gesture of good will, but others say life in the town became unlivable from the coal mining.
According to a statement from Shane Harvey, the general counsel for Massey, many of Lindytown’s residents were either retired miners or their widows and descendants who "welcomed the opportunity to move to places more metropolitan" or with easier access to medical facilities. Interested in selling their properties, they contacted Massey, which began making offers in December 2008 — offers that for the most part were accepted. Harvey went on to say that Massey voluntarily bought the properties “as an additional backup to the state and federal regulations” that protect people who live near mining operations."
James Smith, 68, a retired coal miner from Lindytown, says the company’s statement is true for some people, buy many residents wanted to leave Lindytown only because the mountaintop removal operations above had ruined the quality of life below. He said that, despite having family in the area for generations, when the explosions began for coal mining, coal dust filled the air: “You could wash your car today, and tomorrow you could write your name on it in the dust. It was just unpleasant to live in that town. Period.” Smith went on to say that Massey was a motivated buyer, given that it was probably cheaper to buy out a small community than to deal with all the complaint-generated inspections, or the possible lawsuits over silica dust and “fly rock.”
Coal mine reclamation
Several studies have shown that despite the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, most mined land - much of it in Appalachia - is not fully reclaimed. According to a 2007 review of reclamation in five western states published by the Western Organization of Resource Councils and the Natural Resources Defense Council, out of over 400,000 acres affected by coal mining in the 10-year period 1996-2005, only 22,906 acres (5.7%) were released from Phase III bonds (lands revegetated, with pre-mining productivity reestablished and pre-mining surface and groundwater restored).
According to a 2009 survey of 410 mountaintop removal locations in Appalachia conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council, 366 locations (89.3%) had no post-mining economic development (excluding forestry and pasture), 26 locations (6.3%) had some form of post-mining economic development, and the status of the remaining 18 locations could not be determined.
In 2010, the AP Press obtained post-mining land use records from Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states where Appalachian mountaintop removal strip mining is most prevalent. In 2009, those states accounted for nearly three-quarters of the coal taken from surface mines in the 13 Appalachian states. Of the more than 345,700 acres of mining lands in eastern Kentucky dating back to 1999 that have been approved for a specific post-mining purpose, just over 6,300 acres, or about 1.8 percent, have been designated for "commercial," "industrial" or "residential" developments, according to data provided by the state Department of Natural Resources. Since October 2001, West Virginia has granted 218 surface mining permits, covering 84,793 acres. Of that acreage, 6,035 acres, or about 7 percent, have been designated for industrial/commercial, public service or residential development. Both state officials said the figures don't include developments that can be sought by private landowners after the state ends its oversight of the mined land. The vast majority of the post-mining land uses in both states were designated for fish and wildlife habitat, forest or pasture lands.
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- "U.S. Coal Production by State, Region and Method of Mining - 2007" (PDF). National Mining Association.
- Mountaintop removal: Moving the mountains -- strip mining by any other name Roanoke Times, July 2, 2006
- "Appeals Court Upholds Mountaintop Removal Mining", Environment News Service, Februrary 3, 2003.
- Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia: Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 2008.
- Mountaintop Mining and Valley Fills in Appalachia (MTM/VF) - Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, U.S. EPA, accessed March 2008.
- What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?, accessed May 4, 2008
- James F. Fox and J. Elliott Campbell, "Terrestrial Carbon Disturbance from Mountaintop Mining Increases Lifecycle Emissions for Clean Coal," Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (6), pp 2144–2149, February 8, 2010
- Ken Ward, Jr., "Important new study details mountaintop removal coal mining's huge carbon footprint," Coal Tattoo, March 17, 2010
- "Mountaintop Mining, West Virginia" NASA Earth Observatory, accessed April 2011.
- Dylan Lovan, "Appalachia Coal Decline: Industry Faces Steep Challenges" AP, Sep. 27, 2011.
- Ken Ward Jr, "Coal's costs outweigh benefits, WVU study finds," Charleston Gazette, June 20, 2009.
- Michael Hendryx, "Education and Jobs, Jobs and Education: A proposal for funding economic redevelopment in Central Appalachia" Central Appalachian Prosperity Project, January 4, 2010.
- Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen, "The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification," 2010 Downstream Strategies report.
- "Welcome To Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood" Appalachian Voice, Feb. 16, 2011.
- "The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009" American Human Development Project, Feb. 2011.
- "WVU study examines health effects of mountaintop mining" WVU Healthcare, May 9, 2011.
- Dam Vergano, "Study: Mountaintop coal mining raises birth defect risks" Science Fair, June 21, 2011.
- Dan Barry, "As the Mountaintops Fall, a Coal Town Vanishes" New York Times, April 12, 2011.
- Harris Epstein, Johanna Wald, John Smillie, "Undermined Promise: Reclamation and Enforcement of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act 1977-2007," Natural Resources Defense Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils, 2007
- Ross Geredien, "Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia," Natural Resources Defense Council, December 7, 2009; additional files at http://www.ilovemountains.org/reclamation-fail/details.php#reclamation_study
- "AP Enterprise: Few Sites Redeveloped After Mining" NPR, Dec. 29, 2010.
Related GEM.wiki articles
- Appalachian Voices
- Citizen groups working on coal issues
- Existing U.S. Coal Mines
- Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy
- Mining industry
- Mountain Justice Summer
- 700 Mountains
- Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
- Retrofit vs. Phase-Out of Coal-Fired Power Plants
- Report Card on Banks and Mountaintop Removal
- Natural gas transmission leakage rates
- West Virginia and coal
- "Public Health Disparities in Appalachian Coal Mining Communities" Presentation by Dr. Michael Hendryx, for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation on October 13, 2010 - This presentation outlines significant environmental health and economic issues that correlate with coal mining in Appalachian communities.
- "Are Endangered Species Being Sacrificed for Coal in Appalachia?", Scientific American, August 10, 2009.
- Burning the Future: Coal in America documentary from writer/director David Novack on the conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia.
- Erik Reece, "Moving Mountains. The battle for justice comes to the coal fields of Appalachia," Orion, January/February 2006.
- Mountaintop Mining & Valley Fills in Appalachia: Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Final PEIS)
- Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen, The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification, Downstream Strategies, January 2010