On March 11, 1939, the West Virginia Legislature passed the state’s first law regulating surface mining. Once referred to as strip mining, surface mining strips away earth, rock, and vegetation—known as overburden—to expose coal deposits.
Coal companies began surface mining commercially in West Virginia as early as 1916. However, the state’s rugged terrain made it unprofitable in most places. The arrival of diesel machinery, trucks, and highways allowed the industry to break from its reliance on railroads and to develop surface mines.
As the practice increased, its environmental impact became more apparent. It turned into a political hot topic starting in the late 1960s. Governor Hulett Smith appointed a special task force to address the issue, and other politicians, including Jay Rockefeller, stridently opposed the practice.
In the 1990s, a new form of surface mining, mountaintop removal, became more common. This more invasive method provides access to coal that would’ve been left behind by traditional strip mining. In recent years, tensions over mountaintop removal have risen between those wanting to boost the state’s diminishing coal industry and activists wanting to protect the environment.