How serious is the pollution that results from mining activities? How clean are the coal mining activities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and other Appalachian areas where mountaintops are stripped away to get at the coal? What other mining activities cause pollution of the air, the land, and the waterways? This paper will delve into those mining activities and report the pollution that results from those strategies.
The Pollution from Mountaintop Removal Strategies
An article in National Geographic (Mitchell, 2006) points to the fact that miles of rivers and streams are simply filled in, drowned in dirt, coal waste, and rocks. And Mitchell discusses the pollution that results when the coal is mined and the waste and other chemical residues are dumped in ponds. Hundreds of billions gallons of "toxic black water and sticky black goo," which are byproducts of mountaintop mining, are dumped into "slurry ponds, sludge lagoons, or waste basins," Mitchell writes on page 2.
In the winter of 1972, Mitchell recalls, two days of "torrential rain" caused a coal-waste structure in Logan County West Virginia to collapse. Folks downhill from the structure were devastated when 130 million gallons of the toxic black material "spilled into Buffalo Creek," Mitchell recalls. The flood of nasty coal waste products simply swept up "scores of homes as it swept downstream," and it resulted in 125 deaths. This is an example of how pollution actually kills people, and the mountaintop mining strategy is to blame for enormous destruction of the land and pollution of the rivers and streams.
An article in Science Daily points to the fact that mountaintop mining produces selenium pollution and that causes "permanent damage to the environment" as well as posing serious risks to human health. Dennis Lemly, a biology research professor, says "We're killing fish right now with selenium pollution from mountaintop mining." And while mountaintop mining pushes "excess rock to the neighboring valley… [and has] buried more than 1,000 miles of streams," the selenium that is produced in the cleaning portion of mountaintop mining is killing fish and causing fish that do survive to be "deformed" with "crooked spines and deformed heads" (Science Daily, 2010).
When oil companies use "strip mining" to go after "tar sands oil" as they do in the Boreal Forest in Alberta, Canada, they "triple the amount of global warming pollution" from the process of extracting that oil (Natural Resources Defense Council - NRDC). Water used in the mining process in the Boreal Forest, in fact the NRDC explains that "four barrels of water are drained from the Athabasca River to produce one barrel of tar sands oil" (NRDC). And those four barrels of water are not returned to the river but instead they wind up "…as toxic slurry dumped in holding lagoons so big they can be seen from space by the naked eye" (NRDC).
The NRDC issued a press release in April, 2010, announcing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced new policies to "strengthen permit requirements under the Clean Water Act." Studies verify that the burial of headwater streams by waste from mountaintop mining "causes permanent loss of ecosystems" through the pollution created by mining. "Mountaintop mining has polluted or obliterated nearly 2,000 miles of streams throughout Appalachia," the NRDC explains. For each ton of coal that is extracted from the mountaintop procedures "…another 20 to 25 tons of mining waste is disposed of in so-called valley fills" (NRDC).
A New York Times' article (Reis, 2010) referred to proposals within the Interior Department that would set stricter standards for mountaintop coal mining activities. Previously, under the Bush Administration, states were allowed to "set their own standards" to avoid "material damage to watersheds." The problem was that "material damage" was never truly defined in a clear way, so streams and rivers were polluted because coal-mining companies made up their own rules. The "waste rock" left over after the mountaintop has been removed is "dumped in valleys," polluting streams and filling. New rules would reportedly require the mining companies to stay 100 feet away from streams with their waste rock and slurry (Reis).
The Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) in Canada points out that when large quantities of rock that contains sulfide minerals are extracted from an open pit -- or opened up in an underground mine -- the sulfide "reacts with water and oxygen to produce sulphuric acid." What happens next is the water reaches a certain level of acidity, bacteria called "Thiobacillus ferroxidans" may develop which leaches out "more trace metals from the wastes" (SDWF). It can take hundreds, even thousands of years for all the sulphides are leached out.
The acid created by this toxic stew is carried downstream by rainwater and "…severely degrades water quality, and can kill aquatic life and make water virtually unusable" (SDWF).
Pollution from surface coal mining in Tennessee is "impacting water quality" in the Big South Fork National River, which is downstream from mountaintop mining (Environment News Service - ENS). And so, the governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Interior to prohibit "surface mining" on 500 miles of ridgeline in several counties in the Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and Emory River Conservation Easement Tract (ENS). The governor filed his petition under the provisions of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The petition seeks to keep water and land resources open and safe for camping, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and fishing and hunting (ENS).
Studies of the damage done to aquatic life in "numerous streams in the Central Appalachian Mountains" has resulted in a report showing "…mining activity has had subtle to severe impacts on benthic macroinvertebrate communities" (Pond, et al., 2008, p. 717). Four different approaches to studying the quality of water show evidence that "…mining activities impair [the] biological condition of streams," Pond explains (717). The biological language used in this scholarly report may be difficult to understand for the layperson, but nonetheless it is pertinent to this paper. Mountaintop mining results in "…[a] shift in species assemblages, [a] loss of Ephemeroptera taxa, changes in individual metrics and indices, and differences in water chemistry" (Pond, 717).
In plain English, Pond explains that mountaintop mining (MTM) buries streams -- they are "permanently eliminated" -- but moreover, the quality of water downstream from the VFs (valley fills) "can have elevated levels of SO4, Ca, Mg, harness, Fe, Mn, Se, alkalinity, K, acidity, and No3/No2" (Pond, 2008). In an understated sentence, Pond explains that these chemicals and pollutants "have the potential to negatively affect the instream aquatic life downstream of alkaline MTM and the associated VFs" (Pond 718).
"Ephemeroptera" is the biological word for mayflies, Pond explains in a 2010 article. Mayflies have for a long time been seen as "important indicators of stream health" and due to their abundance in natural mountain streams in the Appalachians, when they become scarce that is a sure sign of pollution (Pond, 2010, 186). The mayflies serve an important role in stream ecosystems -- fish eat them and in some cases depend on them -- hence, because of the pollution resulting from mountaintop mining and the resulting negative impact on mayflies, there have been calls "for regional or global conservation" of the mayflies (Pone, 2010, 186).
Echoing what other publications have reported about pollution that results from mountaintop mining, the peer-reviewed journal Science explains that there are "serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address" (Palmer, et al., 2010, p. 148). And because there has been a 30-year increase in this kind of surface mining -- MTM is now the "major form of such mining" -- forests are being destroyed, which takes away habitat for endangered species, valleys are being filled, headwater streams are being buried, and these practices and results are ongoing in the Appalachians (Palmer, 148).
Specifically as regards pollution, when water emerges from the "base of valley fills" it contains a "variety of solutes toxic or damaging to biota" including "elevated concentrations of sulfate, calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate ions" (Palmer, 148). These concentrations cause "decreases in multiple measures of biological health" which in layman's terms causes "environmental degradation"; in particular, elevated levels of SO4 (sulfates) can increase "microbial production of hydrogen sulfide, a toxin for many aquatic plants and organisms" (Palmer, 148). Current mitigation strategies are supposed to "compensate for lost stream habitat and functions," Palmer concludes, "but do not…water quality degradation caused by mining activities is neither prevented nor corrected during reclamation or mitigation" (149).
Mountaintop mining for coal isn't the only approach to mining that is causing pollution; according to an article in The Guardian, in Fujian province in eastern China the Ting River has been contaminated with pollution from mining. When there is no wind or rain the water in the Ting River "is green" but when it rains heavily, sediment from the river's bottom "is brought up and the water turns into a rusty sunset color" (Chuanmin, 2011). Losses to…