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April 6th, 2010
07:21 PM ET

In West Virgina, a battle over mountaintop mining

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/US/04/06/mine.disaster.safety/t1main.big.branch.mine.gi.jpg caption="The West Virginia mine explosion on April 5 killed at least 25 people." width=300 height=169]

Sophia Yan
TIME

Pass through the handful of acres that make up Lindytown, W. Va., and you'll see empty houses, a boarded-up church, a town too minor to warrant its own post office. In this forgotten southern corner of the state, even the pine trees look sad.

But this desolate spot, like so many other abandoned small towns in Appalachia, is a gateway to hidden wealth. Deep within Boone County are rich seams of coal, holding some 3.6 billion tons of the black stuff and millions in profits — and much of it sits in Cherry Pond Mountain, a few miles from Lindytown. The largest coal-mining company in the region — Massey Energy, based in Richmond, Va. — has its eye on it.

Loud blasting began years ago. Massey and other large coal-producing companies like Patriot Coal, in St. Louis, employ a particularly destructive form of excavation called mountaintop mining, which exposes entire coal seams by blowing off a mountain's summit; used mostly in Appalachia, such mining produces 130 millions tons of coal in the region per year. It's less popular in other coal-rich spots such as Texas, where the coal is deeper underground and requires a different kind of mining to unearth. Coal companies say mountaintop mining is also cheaper than traditional mining: rather than burrowing under or digging through the "overburden" (the soil, trees and rock that lie on top of coal seams), which requires lots of manpower and expensive machinery, all you need to hit black gold in Appalachia are some explosives.

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