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A problem in three dimensions: Mountaintop removal mining, mosaic, and the Anthropocene

The characteristics and impacts of the Anthropocene are so diverse and all-encompassing that I’m hard-pressed to think of even one aspect of our lives and the planet we inhabit that remain unscathed. As an artist engaged in big issues like the Anthropocene (and climate change), I will never run out of material to draw on. This is both a blessing (as much as you can consider the destruction of our planet a blessing…) and a curse, in that some days it can get a little overwhelming trying to decide what particular angle to tackle next.

But sometimes an issue just grabs you and won’t let go. Three years ago, a scientific study popped up on my radar and has been gently but incessantly nudging my creative subconscious ever since, until I was finally able to turn my attention to it in the studio. That study was one out of Duke University that quantified the destruction that mountaintop removal (MTR) mining has wreaked on Appalachia.

“Then They Took The Mountains” (2019), 22″ diameter — sandstone, marble, calcite, petrified wood, limestone, shale, schist, smalti

You might think it’s weird that a study about Appalachia would grab this Canadian’s attention, when there are clearly similarly destructive practices happening here at home (I’m looking at you, tar sands). Don’t worry: I can assure you that I am equally horrified by the scale of destruction brought about by the tar sands operations. But what drew me to this study about MTR mining was one specific thing: the researchers quantified the problem in three dimensions. And that just kind of blew my mind. They argued that the impacts of the practice couldn’t be adequately described in terms of just the land area disturbed (e.g., the number of square kilometres destroyed), like we do for disturbances like deforestation. To properly capture the impact of this particular mining practice, you also had to account for the topographical changes.

First things first: a little MTR mining 101. As its name suggests, coal companies literally blow the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams under them. How does this surface mining on steroids work? First, they take all the trees and soil off the mountain. Of course they don’t put all that perfectly good timber to use. It just gets burned or illegally dumped in a valley, because to do otherwise would cut into their profits. Next, they drill deep holes in the top of the mountain, stuff them with explosives, and BOOM. These blasts remove hundreds of feet of mountaintop in one go. Then they bring in huge machines (22 storeys tall!) to clear away all the debris and scoop up the coal. They deal with the rubble from the blast by tossing it in the surrounding valleys.  

Because this kind of mining takes the tops off mountains and puts them in valleys, the Duke researchers found that 40 years of the practice have profoundly flattened the region, up to 40% in some places. It has also made the slopes of the mountains 10% less steep.

The physical effects of mountaintop mining are much more similar to volcanic eruptions, where the entire landscape is fractured, deepened, and decoupled from prior landscape evolution trajectories, effectively resetting the clock on landscape and ecosystem coevolution.

Ross, McGlynn, Burnhardt, “Deep Impact: Effects of Mountaintop Mining on Surface Topography, Bedrock Structure, and Downstream Waters

These changes are having profound impacts on how the landscape works. On the blown-away mountaintops (which are now more like plateaus), grasses tend to take over because the environment is no longer suited to forests. In the valleys, there’s a definite change in how water flows (or doesn’t), in its quality, and in the life it supports. Some studies have found that the surrounding waters have lost half their fish species. Water contamination is prevalent in local communities, where many residents can no longer use their well water for drinking, cooking, or bathing.

The rubble filling these valleys is no joke. Some of these so-called “valley fills” are the size of an Olympic swimming pool and some are the size of 10,000 Olympic swimming pools, which I can’t even wrap my head around. They cover and block waterways, and the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the fills have buried more miles of stream than the entire length of the Mississippi River.

Valley fill, mosaic style

As with many environmental issues, there are also deep connections to human health. The health impacts of MTR mining on the surrounding communities are troubling to say the least. One researcher found that there are about 1,200 excess deaths per year in communities affected by MTR mining compared to unaffected Appalachian communities. There is also evidence of birth defects and low birth weights. For instance, the risk of a heart defect is 181% higher in MTR areas than other areas.

The Obama administration had begun making progress to rein in these destructive practices and had commissioned public health studies as well. I don’t need to tell you what has happened under the Trump administration. (If you really need a hint: the regulations and studies suffered the same fate as the poor mountaintops themselves…they got blown up.)

If you have 10 minutes, I highly recommend this short documentary by Human Rights Watch

For this mosaic, I created a mountainous substrate (but old mountains, like the Appalachians, not young jagged ones) and then cut the tops off them. I later used the tops to clog up the river valley winding its way between the mountains. You can see the river running under these fictitious valley fills, slowing to a trickle by the time it makes its way past all of them. While much of the meaning in the piece comes from the topography I created and altered, the process of building and covering the river was, for me, quite symbolic and imbued the mosaic with extra meaning.

Where the mountaintops used to be…

Those who get to explore this mosaic in person will see that the river continues under the inverted mountaintops, but you really have to peek around/under them. Looking only from directly above, you’d never guess how far under the rubble I actually mosaicked. To do this, I would first mosaic the river and surrounding banks, taking as much care as I normally would for a portion of the mosaic that was destined to be exposed and easily seen. Then I would cover these areas up with the chunks of mountaintop. Trust me, this was not easy to do. To see my careful work (often 2 or 3 hours’ worth of work) vanish in a matter of minutes filled me with anxiety, sadness, doubt, and a feeling of loss. And this was how it had to be. The parallel with how those valley fills cover up ecosystems and landscapes that took millennia to evolve brings another layer of meaning to the piece.

Looking upstream toward the headwaters flowing unobstructed…but not for long
The river disappearing under the decapitated mountains

As an artist this piece stretched and challenged me, and the research for this blog post horrified me (but also made me even more thankful that I chose to explore this issue through my art). If the defining characteristic of the Anthropocene is that human activity is the dominant driver of change on the planet, then for me MTR mining is a perfect poster child for this new epoch and for the scope and scale of the challenge we have created for ourselves in our insatiable quest for cheap resources.

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