Mountaintop Removal and Slurry Impoundments – From the ground and in the air

I have been working on stories about resource extraction in West Virginia since November. One of my first interviews in the Coal River Valley was with Junior Walk. During the interview he called West Virginia, “A resource colony that powers the rest of the country.” As I spent more time in the region and saw the impacts of the coal industry on communities and the environment, I found that Junior’s words resonated more clearly.

Below are a set of images captured on the ground and in the air of Mountaintop Removal in Southern West Virginia and of the Brushy Fork Impoundment.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining that involves the mining of the summit ridge of a mountain. During the beginning stages of mountaintop removal, all topsoil and vegetation is removed. Trees are often not used commercially, but are burned and dumped into valley fills. 

The series below includes an image of the Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment which is only a few miles from the towns of Whitesville and Sylvester. Coal slurry is the substance left over after the process of “cleaning coal.” Before coal is burned in a power plant it is taken to a coal preparation plant where it is washed with chemicals prior to shipping the coal to market. In January, MCHM, a chemical that is used in the process of cleaning coal, spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, polluting the drinking water of over 300,000 people.

Brushy Fork Slurry impoundment owned by Massey Energy is 900 feet high and will hold 8.168 billion gallons of slurry once it is completed. The impoundment currently holds 7.8 billon gallons of toxic sludge and is the largest earthen dam in the United States. By taking a quick look at google map one can see that there are dozens of slurry impoundments throughout the state of West Virginia.

The series below also includes an image of the Jarrell Family Cemetery which is now a small island of land surrounded by mountaintop removal mining. Hidden under the trees on this patch of land is where generations of families from Appalachia are buried. The mining site surrounding the cemetery is called the Twilight Surface Mine. It was once owned by Massey Energy and is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources

A special thanks to South Wings for helping me get access to photograph the images.