The prominence of this type of mining method is underlined by a study prepared for the Governor of West Virginia which states that,
"Mountaintop removal methods are essential to maintain the state's present level of coal production. The lower production costs of MTR have contributed significantly to maintaining West Virginia as a competitive coal producer."
3. Environmental impact of coal mining in the Appalachians.
3.1. Underground mining
The earliest coal mining in Appalachia consisted of various primitive form of underground as well as surface mining. However in the initial stages of mining in the region the methods used were minimally invasive in terms of the environment and "...had only minimal impact on the physical and organic environment."
However, this was to change with the increases in the demand from industry and more advanced technology. "In the 1870s, however, markets began to expand beyond local users. Industrial investment in the region led to a proliferation of railroad lines and the beginning of large-scale coal mining in Appalachia."
Some of the ways in which underground mining affected the environment have already been referred to. On the one hand, low scale underground mining can have little obvious effect on the environment but it can also lead to "... appreciable diminution, ponding, and/or diversion."
One of the main problems is water loss and the upsetting of the balance in the water table which can lead to concomitant stress on the natural environment.
The formation of subsidence-induced cracks, surface depressions, and/or sinkholes at the bottom of, or adjacent to, surface water bodies, such as streams, ponds, and lakes can lead to complete or partial loss of water due to leakage to the underlying strata.
This can also impact on natural drainage systems, which is essential for the balance in the ecosystem.
Among the other environmental effects of this type of mining in the late nineteenth century was the reduction of trees for timber props in the mines. This was to lead the destruction of natural animal habitats. These effects on the ecosystem of the region were to be exaggerated by the development of strip mining, which was to destroy large areas of forest and habitation.
3.2. Strip mining and MRM
Forms of strip mining and especially mountaintop removal mining have been used in Appalachian coal country for 20 years. This practice has also been the centre of legal debate and regulatory confusion.
"In the United States, one hundred tons of coal is extracted every two seconds. Around 70% of that coal comes from strip mines, and over the last twenty years, an increasing amount comes from mountaintop removal sites."
With the increase in competition, industrial demand and new technologies, strip mining began to overtake underground mining as the method of choice. Strip mining not only exacerbated the negative environmental effects of previous forms of mining but also added another dimension to the environmental trauma of the region.
As a result of this form of mining it was found that in the 1920s that mining in the areas of Appalachia had had a significant effect on waterways and acid drainage. This was to increase in the 1960s when it was established that;
..acid polluted nearly six thousand miles of streams in the region, primarily in the Susquehanna, Allegheny, Monongahela, Potomac, and Delaware River basins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. Most of this pollution, a result of the exposure of sulfur-containing pyrite and marcasite to air and water, came from abandoned deep mines.
Strip mining, especially in the form of mountaintop removal was to result in large areas of forest being cleared and an increase of the environmental effects of deforestation begun by underground mining. This of course had a severely negative effect on the animal population as well as contributing to erosion and the sedimentation of streams.
The mountaintop removal method has been shown to be extremely destructive of the environment. Furthermore," the removed material, or "overburden," is dumped into huge valley fills, often burying mountain streams."
2003 study of the environmental impact of this type of mining on a 12-million-acre study area including parts of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and east Tennessee, found that;
..6.8% of the forested territory in that region "has been or may be affected by recent and future (1992-2012) mountaintop mining." Of the 59,000 miles of streams in the area, the draft reported that 724 miles had been covered by valley fills between 1985 and 2001, while a total of 1,200 miles had been affected.
This study goes on to conclude that, "Mountaintop mining operations in the Appalachian coalfields involve fundamental changes to the region's landscape and terrestrial wildlife habitats."
It should not be forgotten that this form of mining has a wider and more extensive impact on the social as well as the physical environment. Mountaintop removal also "...harms the surrounding communities that have lived in the mountains for generations. Residents near mines suffer from 'rock slides, catastrophic floods, poisoned water supplies, constant blasting, destroyed property, and lost culture'."
Reports also indicate that statically the impact of this mining method is devastating for the environment. Statistics indicate that approximately 300 square miles of forest have been decimated and over 1,200 miles of rivers and streams have been buried by mountaintop removal waste. Included in this estimate is the fact that large segments of downstream water has been polluted as a result of mine sludge and toxic substances like arsenic, mercury, chromium, boron, selenium, and nickel.
Sludge and slag heaps concomitant issue that affects the environment is the problem of inadequately controlled and managed coal slurry impoundments and slag heaps. An example of this is an event that took place in 1972 when a wall of water, mud, rock, and other coal wastes "...rushed through the valley of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, killing 125 people and destroying sixteen communities."
There are also other recorded cases of the pollution of areas and the environment by coal slurry.
It is significant that many large sludge ponds in the area are larger than 500 million gallons in volume.
It follows that sludge ponds and slag heaps not only have a deleterious effect on the life of the people but also on the environment. An example of this is the Kentucky's Martin County Sludge Spill in 2000 when,
..sludge impoundment broke through into an underground mine below, propelling 306 million gallons of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.
Coal mining has also greatly affected the natural environment in the Appellation region. The various types of mining methods have resulted in environmental damage such as deforestation, acid mine drainage and siltation of streams, air pollution and acid rain, as well as soil degradation, among others,. The early underground miming, while not as invasive and destructive as surface mining, also contributed it later environmental damage. This initial damage has been severely increased by practices such as mountaintop removal mining.
As a result of this severe environmental damage there have been legal measures taken by governmental and other agencies to reduce the impact of coal mining in the region. Since the 1930s these attempts to reduce have met with very little real success in terms of restoring and maintaining environmental balance. The present debate about mining in the region is underscored by a plethora of studies and reports on the negative impact of methods such as MRM. As one commentary on the situation notes; "As a result of weak laws, poor enforcement, and increasingly destructive surface mining, many serious environmental consequences continued through the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first."
Findings like these do not augur well for the future of the region, These reports and findings serve to emphasize the fact that a more harmonious balance between industrial coal mining and the environment needs to established.
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Buckley, Geoffrey L. 1998. The Environmental Transformation of an Appalachian Valley, 1850-1906. The Geographical Review 88, no. 2: 175+. Database online. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001410948.Internet. Accessed 1 August 2008.
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