Mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia are estimated to produce just 5 to 10 percent of total U.S. coal production, and generate less than 4 percent of our electricity—an amount that could be eliminated from the energy supply with small gains in energy efficiency and conservation. This highly destructive form of surface mining is disfiguring an entire region, the coalfield areas of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, because of one reason: profit.

More than 470 mountains in the southern Appalachians, which are among the oldest mountains on Earth, have already been sheared off. Vast areas of wildlife habitat, the most biologically diverse forest in North America, have been obliterated. Roughly 2000 miles of streams have been filled or severly degraded by mining waste, all in pursuit of coal. And coal is a lousy way to power a society.

From mining to burning to disposing the combustion waste, it’s a dirty business. Unfortunately, in our reductionist age, too often people looking at the coal problem don’t consider the whole problem. Only by contemplating the entire life cycle of fossil energy—coal extraction, preparation, transportation, combustion, and waste disposal of by-products—can one fully understand the enormity of coal’s toxic legacy.

See how coal’s toxic legacy stretches from blown-up mountains to a dangerously warming planet to coal ash dumps polluting air and water:

  The most profitable way to decapitate a mountain. Blow its top off, section by section, and then move the rubble with heavy equipment. Sometimes the forest cloaking the condemned mountain is clear-cut; more often the trees are simply scraped away, bulldozed into a pile, and burned. A pad is leveled, and a large drilling rig bores a series of holes. Into them goes a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil—the same type of explosive that homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh used to bomb the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Prior to detonation, warning whistles sound. When the charge explodes, the earth shudders. The explosions may shake and crack house foundations, startle wildlife, and spray a large area with dust and flying rock. Coal mining is far and away the largest industrial consumer of explosives in the United States. According to government figures for 2005, more than 1.8 billion pounds of high explosives were used in West Virginia and Kentucky alone, primarily in surface-mining operations.
   
The most ancient mountains in North America, plundered for profit. The forest covering these venerable ridges and valleys is a global hotspot of biological diversity. An estimated 800,000 acres of that forest have already been destroyed—and more than 470 mountains sheared off—by surface-mining operations. Sometimes hundreds of feet of elevation are lost as a mountain’s original contour is blasted away. The topsoil, foundation of the landscape’s exceptional diversity of life, is wasted. Broad, plateau-like mesas remain. Federal law does not require formerly forested mine sites to be reforested during “reclamation.” Even when operators meet their legal obligations to reclaim mined areas, the result is a biological wasteland compared to the native forest—generally a thin, green sheen of exotic grass growing on compacted rubble. The return of a vibrant, ecologically healthy natural community that approaches its former richness is a distant dream.
   
Mountaintop removal is strip-mining on steroids. Massive dump trucks, huge bulldozers, and ten-story-high draglines can undo in months what geological processes took millions of years to build. Typically, multiple coal seams are exposed as a mountaintop-removal operation dismantles the landscape, piece by piece. The earthmoving equipment requires only a handful of operators. Mine- related employment in the Appalachian coalfields has plummeted in recent decades because of increasing mechanization, and because production has shifted from underground to surface mining—“taking the miner out of mining,” as local residents say. These radical strip-mining operations not only obliterate the former habitat and homes of innumerable wild creatures, they also reshape the very contour of the horizon. The familiar curves and folds of the landscape, the mountains that have anchored communities for generations, are simply gone.
   
The peaks laid low. Material blasted, scooped, and bulldozed off the coal seams is called “spoil” or “overburden” in the mining industry. That overburden is pushed into adjacent valleys. Massive constructed terraces of the fill material (the shattered remains of an ancient mountain) cover what had previously been in those valleys, the headwater streams of the region’s rivers. More than nineteen hundred miles of these headwater streams have been destroyed or degraded by mountaintop-removal mining operations already. Headwater streams are the lifeblood of the larger watershed. They are crucial for wildlife, for healthy fisheries, and to maintain water quality downstream.
   
For coalfield residents, coal trucks can be hell on wheels. The unprocessed, “mine run” coal is transported off a mountaintop-removal mine site via truck or conveyor belt and sent to a coal preparation plant for cleaning, processing, and loading into railcars. Many chemical agents—various surfactants and flocculants—are used to remove impurities from the raw coal before it is sold to electric utilities and other industrial consumers. Coal prep plants, which process coal from deep mines, too, produce vast quantities of liquid waste—coal sludge—and are also a source of airborne coal dust and particulates, a potential health threat to workers and local residents. Overloaded coal trucks are a perpetual menace on the narrow, winding roads of the Appalachian coalfields. From 2000 to 2004, there were more than seven hundred accidents involving coal trucks in Kentucky alone; fifty-three people died, and more than five hundred were injured.
   
Big coal cooks up a toxic soup. After the coal is washed, a slurry of impurities, coal dust, and chemical agents used in the process remains. This liquid waste, called “coal sludge” or “slurry,” is often injected into abandoned underground mines, a practice that can lead to groundwater contamination. In one case affecting the citizens of Pike County, Kentucky, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that coal slurry being dumped into a former deep mine by the Eastern Coal Corporation contained contaminants “which were likely to enter a public water supply…and may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.” In public hearings, many coalfield residents have attributed their health problems to water wells polluted after the coal mining industry “disposes” its liquid waste by injecting coal slurry underground. The primary disposal practice for coal slurry is to store it in vast unlined lagoons or surface impoundments created near mountaintop-removal mines. Hundreds of these slurry impoundments are scattered across the Appalachian coalfields. Individual impoundments have been permitted to store billions of gallons of waste. Occasionally the dams fail, and the result is a tragic loss of life and environmental catastrophe (see Lakes of Waste, p. 105). In 2000 a slurry impoundment operated by the Martin County Coal Company in Kentucky broke through into abandoned mineworks, out old mine portals, and into tributary streams of the Big Sandy River. More than 300 million gallons of coal slurry fouled the waterway for a hundred miles downriver. The massive spill prompted Congress to commission a National Academy of Sciences report on coal-waste impoundments.
   
The coal flows forth like a river of black gold. This river has been running for more than a century, as the Appalachian coalfields powered America’s industrial expansion during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While coal has conferred vast wealth on a small number of coal barons, bankers, regional landholding companies, and electric utilities, extreme poverty remains rampant in Appalachia. County by county data show a remarkable correlation between the coalfield areas most affected by surface mining and high poverty rates.
   
A powerful source of pollution. Coal-burning power plants generate roughly half the electricity produced in the United States. These plants, many of them old and without adequate pollution-control technology, are the major industrial source of air pollution, which causes needless suffering among hundreds of thousands of Americans with asthma, respiratory diseases, and heart conditions. Fine-particle pollution from power plants is estimated to cause twenty-two thousand premature, avoidable deaths among U.S. citizens every year and tens of thousands of nonfatal heart attacks. Coal-burning power plants are also the single largest factor in America’s contribution to global warming. According to government data, they annually emit more carbon dioxide (the key greenhouse gas linked to global climate change), than the entire U.S. transportation sector.
   
Not in my backyard. Coal-combustion ash, the waste product left over after coal is burned in power plants or other industrial applications, actually ends up in everybody’s backyard—the Earth’s air and water—not just the backyards of people unfortunate enough to live next door to an ash dump. Coal-combustion waste typically contains arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and various other pollutants, but its disposal is unregulated under federal law, having been exempted by Congress in 1980 from hazardous waste rules. State rules governing coal-combustion-waste disposal are inconsistent; some states have minimal or no regulations in place. The waste can be dumped in unlined landfills and ponds, above ground in great heaps, or in active and abandoned mines. Rain and groundwater leaching through this waste has caused significant groundwater contamination at ash dumps around the country, and at least two federal Superfund sites are associated with coal-combustion waste. Ironically, as federal clean air legislation has prompted better capture of pollutants at the smokestack, the federally unregulated solid waste stream from power plant scrubbers and boilers has grown increasingly toxic. A risk assessment report commissioned by the federal EPA concluded that “current management of coal combustion waste in landfills and surface impoundments results in significant risk to human health and the environment.”

Copyright 2009 — Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining

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