Mountaintop Removal Semantics Debate Gives Ammunition to Energy Industry

Dispute is a distraction causing some environmentalists to miss the forest for the trees

By Michael M. Barrick

WESTON, W.Va. – On April 27, five environmental groups released a statement pointing out that the plans for the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would include widespread destruction – what they termed “decapitation” – of nearly 40 miles of mountain ridge tops along the proposed route, including just a few miles from here.

In alerting the public to the devastating impact of these plans by Dominion Resources, the groups issued a news release with the headline, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline Would Trigger Extensive Mountaintop Removal.” In response, the groups were attacked by some other environmentalists who claim that what is planned by Dominion does not constitute Mountaintop Removal (MTR).

High-Mountain-Crossing_900 DPMC
This graphic from the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition shows where mountaintops would be removed for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Though here pipeliners would cross the ridges, there are 38 miles of mountain ridge tops – 19 each in West Virginia and Virginia – that they would reduce from 10 to 60 feet.

In fact, it has led to quite an online discussion – a discussion that has been relatively polite but undeniably silly. I fail to see the consternation over making a distinction. Dominion is planning on removing the tops of mountains. What else to call it? Calling it what it is does not diminish the horrors of MTR as we’ve come to see it. However, failing to call this type of pipeline construction MTR does diminish the horrors it will unleash upon our communities and the land that supports them.

So, when we received the news release, we headlined our article, “ACP Would Require Extensive Mountaintop Removal.” I’ve had a couple of readers object to the use of the MTR moniker. I have responded that at the Appalachian Chronicle we will continue to call it Mountaintop Removal because that is what it is. Whether the fossil fuel industry extracts gas, oil or coal, the outcome is the same: destroyed sacred mountaintops.

Mountaintop Removal is Mountaintop Removal. That is what I’m going to call it, because that’s what the hell it is.”

This type of discord within the environmental social justice community is exactly what Dominion Resources and their co-conspirators in the fossil fuel industry want. What is most disturbing is that it is a self-inflicted wound.

The odds are stacked against us. Let us not get bogged down in semantics; in doing so, we give ammunition to the energy industry. Let us agree, that when you remove the tops of mountains, create millions of tons of overburden, destroy streams and forests, and harm public health, what you are doing is MTR. The scale is irrelevant. Destruction is destruction.

And Mountaintop Removal is Mountaintop Removal. That is what I’m going to call it, because that’s what the hell it is.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

On Facebook

On Twitter: @appchronicle


  1. Thank you Michael! My heart took a significant dent from this situation. I so respect the work of all who oppose the criminal actions of the extraction industry, and I carry a lot of guilt for not knowing about many of the crimes in West Virginia until three years ago, when I became involved in the battle against the ACP and MVP. I cannot imagine anyone involved will ever remain silent again, no matter how these pipelines play out. Once eyes are open, they rarely close, and isn’t that the point? I cannot be an apologist for the impact that these headlines and stories have had, as we have discovered that a subtle approach simply is not effective. The opposition has put these facts out for several years and the public has had little, if any, reaction. Anyone fighting MTR for the extraction of coal likely knows this. I will continue to promote their stories and support them in whatever small ways I can, and I know that supporting each other is the only way to win. Dominion carefully played a “press conference” card to cast a positive light on their progress before their upcoming annual shareholders meeting. The opposition simply reacted.

  2. Appalachian Mountain Advocates declared a major victory in Patriot Coal’s agreement to not seek more mountaintop removal permits. Then, when Patriot did so, Appalmad did not challenge the new permit and said it was not MTR because it did not include valley fills. Would you call that mountaintop removal “because that’s what the hell it is?” Appalmad sent a fundraising letter in November that declared “mountaintop removal is essentially over,” undermining (pardon the pun) the work of groups still dealing with the ongoing, expanding practice and its deadly consequences. Would you accuse Appalmad of sowing discord, causing a self-inflicted wound, or being “undeniably silly?” When, time and time again, people state, “I thought MTR was over,” where do you suppose they got that idea? Do you suppose the claim that MTR is “essentially over,” thereby undermining efforts to stop it, might also be exactly what the coal companies want?

    We did a pretty good job of biting our tongues about Appalmad’s fundraising letter. Only they know how many people received it and how much revenue they generated from their claims. It’s almost impossible to measure the damage to under-resourced organizations when a powerful, popular group of attorneys and experts claims that the focus of our work just doesn’t exist anymore, implying that it’s because of their work.

    People are outraged that 38 miles of ridges will be reduced by 10-60 feet, as they should be. But when I point out that there is active and approved mountaintop removal affecting 29 miles on Coal River Mountain alone, 10 miles more than either the WV or VA sides of the ACP, lowering the mountain by hundreds of feet, you say the other groups “were attacked.” Do you suppose that your blog post may cause more discord and distraction than the comparison or semantics that you’re attacking? And if “scale is irrelevant,” why use the adjective “extensive” to describe ACP’s MTR?

    I can concede that the ACP will conduct MTR if Appalmad will concede that MTR is not “essentially over” and never has been. I’d really like to hear their explanation for why they made that claim.

    But let’s be real about the “attack.” I pointed out the relative scale of the ACP MTR and Coal River Mountain’s ongoing MTR. A well-known and respected colleague stated that what ACP is doing is not MTR. We both alluded to Appalmad’s letter. In response, you say that we are undeniably silly, sow discord, self-inflict a wound, cause dispute and distraction, and miss the forest for the trees. We’re supposed to sit down and shut up and go along to get along. I’m going to call that a condescending and divisive attack, because that’s what the hell it is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s