Mountaintop Removal Mining: An Environmental Horror
First and foremost, I am against mountaintop removal mining (as if this was not evident by the header) and I believe it to be raping the environment and destroying the beautiful world we live in. With that being said I should say that I am from West Virginia, an area in Appalachia that is known for about 2-3 things: Basketball, Football, and Coal (possibly the gritty Matthew McConaughey movie titled "We Are Marshall" but thats for another day’s discussion).
Ever since the movie October Sky, America has been aware (at least I hope) of the fact that coal is an important industry in West Virginia. Coal is arguably one of the MOST important industries in the state, and is held in very high regard by West Virginia residents. Coal is, in a way, a gift and a curse. Black gold is nice for a state’s infrastructure, but it is constantly proving worse for the environment in the way that it is mined.
For those not familiar with mountaintop removal mining, I shall outline its basic process and help illustrate how it is conducted. And by I, I mean ilovemountains.org will tell you how:
Mountaintop removal is a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Primarily, mountaintop removal is occurring in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia are increasingly using this method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require.
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines mountaintop removal as follows:
“Mountaintop removal/valley fill is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. Mountaintop removal can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.”
There are 6 main components of the mountaintop removal process:
CLEARING — Before mining can begin, all topsoil and vegetation must be removed. Because coal companies frequently are responding to short-term fluctuations in the price of coal, these trees are often not even used comercially in the rush to get the coal, but instead are burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills.
BLASTING — Many Appalachian coal seams lie deep below the surface of the mountains. Accessing these seams through surface mining can require the removal of 500-800 feet or more of elevation. Blowing up this much mountain is accomplished by using millions of pounds of explosives.
DIGGING — Coal and debris is removed by using this piece of machinery, called a dragline. A dragline stands 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars in its bucket. These machines can cost up to $100 million, but are favored by coal companies because they displace the need for hundreds of jobs. .
DUMPING WASTE — The waste from the mining operation, also known as overburden or spoil, is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. According to an EPA environmental impact statement, more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams were permitted to be buried as of 2001.
PROCESSING — The coal is washed and treated before it is loaded on trains. The excess water left over from this process is called coal slurry or sludge and is stored in open coal impoundments. Coal sludge is a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic mercury, lead, copper, and chromium. Impoundments are held in place by mining debris, making them very unstable. .
RECLAMATION — While reclamation efforts such as stabilization and revegetation are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, state agencies that regulate mining are generous with granting waivers to coal companies. Most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed, but even the best reclamation provides no comfort to nearby families and communities whose drinking water supplies have been polluted and whose homes will be threatened by floods for the hundred or thousands of years it will require to re-grow a forest on the mined site.
If the name wasn’t a big enough indication, ilovemountains.org, you can probably guess by now that mountaintop removal is essentially just as it sounds. In its simplest terms, it removes the tops of mountains. West Virginia is known for its mountainous beauty. If you have ever been to West Virginia, you will know what I’m talking about. The rolling hills are beautiful, and mountaintop removal is constantly taking this away.
But what else? Its not just taking away beautiful landscape, there is much more inherent danger that must be addressed.
The constant "blasting" of the mountains to mine in the process that ensues is harmful to the people in the surrounding towns where the mining takes place. Foundations of housing have been known to shift, and large amounts of debris can be harmful as well. The blasting is a necessary part of this harmful process.
Other wonderful parts of this process include massive flooding, slurries and sludges, possible acid mine drainage, etc. depending on the location of the mines themselves.
The biggest issue to this day, it seems at least, is what are the alternatives to this process of mining?
Well, here’s one I’ve just heard about recently, its called the Coal River Wind Project
The Coal River Wind Project is a proposed 440-Megawatt wind farm consisting of 220 wind turbines to be constructed on the land slated to be blown away for coal mining, and the coalition has done extensive studies on the area to show just how viable an alternative this wind farm would be. According to the project’s study, the wind farm would:
• Create 440 megawatts of power, enough to power more than 150,000 homes in West Virginia.
• Create more than 200 local employment opportunities during the construction phase, and 40-50 permanent operations and maintenance jobs during the life of the wind farm.
• Provide Raleigh County and West Virginia with a source of clean, renewable energy, as well as a sustained tax income that could be used for the construction of new schools for the county.
• Allow for concurrent uses of the mountain that could revitalize the local economy and bring sustainable economic development for the surrounding communities.
I haven’t heard a lot about it, so its feasibility is questionable at least to me.
Economically speaking, MTR has robbed many West Virginians of jobs. Although mining a large amount more than what traditional mining would allow, losing it would create more jobs than current. Lord knows West Virginia needs these jobs.
This can be paralleled to a conversation started during a meeting of the WVYD Environmental Caucus I attended. A young man claimed that we should "accept Mountaintop removal mining as an inevitability" and that "many of his friends are in school because they are supported by coal mining." The fact of the matter is, MTR has lost jobs for coal miners.
The hard fact to swallow is, West Virginia will eventually need to move beyond coal (and definitely beyond MTR). Coal will not be around forever, but the issue is simply not being addressed with enough intensity. It has supported the state’s economy and many of its families for so long that its hard to imagine for any member of the state something different, or a transition away from coal. Indeed, this is hard for many to swallow but it must be recognized.