New Scientific Concerns Beg for End to Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining


Mountain top removal coal mining at Kayford Mine, West Virginia. Image credit:© 2006 B. Mark Schmerling, courtesy Sierra Club Library

A recent article in the journal Science provides still more arguments to the call for an end to mountaintop-removal coal mining. The Sierra Club has long opposed this destructive form of mining where the tops of ancient Appalachian mountains are literally blown off to get to coal seams below; the waste is then dumped into valleys and waterways.

Instead of giving you my perspective on the science, I called on Dr. Donald Kennedy, the former editor in chief of Science and the Bing Professor of Environmental Science and a former president of Stanford University. He has served as chairman of the Sierra Club's Climate Recovery Partnership since 2008.
The rest of this post comes from Dr. Kennedy. Before I hand it over to him, I'll add that if you want to add your voice to the call for an end to this form of mining, visit our website and take action.

Now, from Dr. Kennedy:

The people of the Appalachian Mountains have had a long history with coal mining - both as a source of employment, and as the initiator of one troublesome environmental impact after another. Both of these relationships arise from government regulations of the mining industry, which have permitted a wide array of technologies to be employed for the extraction of coal. In fact, surface mining is now the primary agent for altering land use in the central mountains of Appalachia.

Special concern has arisen over the technique of mountaintop removal coal mining, which involves deforestation and the use of explosives to break up rocks to access buried coal. The mining waste is then pushed into the valleys where it buries and contaminates streams. The very destructive nature of this mining makes one wonder how it became a routine approach for this industry, but regulatory reform - tightening of the rules regarding the issuance of mining permits - has been slow to develop.

Thanks to a paper published this month in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, there are now compelling data to support a serious effort to make the nation's mining rules adequate for the twenty-first century. The distinguished authors of the study expose the links between downstream impacts on river quality and human health and the processes used in shaving off mountain tops and dumping the debris into valleys and waterways.

Many of the watersheds in West Virginia are over ten percent disturbed by mining waste, meaning that the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining are far reaching to waterways and to the people that depend on them. The clearcutting at higher elevations removes quality stands of Appalachian deciduous forests - themselves places of high biodiversity - which increases runoff and danger of downstream flooding. So-called "remediation" efforts have largely failed to show significant regeneration of woody plants. Waters that flow through mine fill emerge enriched with a number of toxic solutes which alter stream ecology - especially as the mining process produces selenium. In 78 streams near mountaintop removal coal mining operations, 73 were found to have levels of selenium well above the toxic threshold.

In these areas, it is not surprising that groundwater flows have been affected: domestic wells have high levels of mine-related pollutants, even months after mining "reclamation" is finished. State advisories are in effect to restrict consumption of fish caught in affected stream waters because of high selenium levels. Human health data show increased hospitalization rates for lung disorders and hypertension, and death rates are higher for lung cancer and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease than in non coal-producing areas. But these patterns are exhibited by women as well as men, ruling out the possibility that they are the result of occupational exposure of mostly male coal miners.

Pending permits for new mining would result in the outright destruction of hundreds of miles of streams, the leveling of more than 60,000 acres of diverse hardwood forests, and a new round of blasting, flooding, and water contamination for Appalachia. Once these streams are buried and natural areas destroyed, they will never fully recover. The Clean Water Act was intended to prevent the destruction that has gone on for the last three decades. But if these permits go forward, the agencies involved will send a signal that the commitment to science, the letter of the law, and balancing economic growth with good environmental stewardship does not apply in Appalachia. To prevent further irreparable damage, the EPA must change Clean Water Act rules to stop allowing companies to fill streams with mining waste.

Of course the product of this mining - coal - also results in negative health effects. Coal, per unit of energy produced, emits more carbon dioxide than any other fuel and is the single biggest contributor to global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate these emissions in the interest of public health, and it may well do so if the Congress fails to act. But in the meanwhile, there is a powerful argument for ending mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia immediately for the benefit of the region's communities and waterways.