I’ve probably been living in the dark (I always thought my apartment could use another lamp), but it was only recently that I heard of mountaintop mining. The controversial practice involves the removal of rock (overburden) from mountain summits and ridges to access coal seams. It has been practiced in the Appalachian mountains – primarily in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee – since the 1960s. The process gained popularity due to its low labor and process costs relative to conventional mining.
As in any form of strip mining, the surface impacts are significant. To access the coal, large areas must be cleared of vegetation. Explosives are used to remove overburden, which is often displaced into nearby valleys. Regulations specify that once the mining operation is concluded, sites must be reclaimed to pre-mining topogaphy and use, although waivers can be granted to the contrary. Likewise, permits are required to deposit fill into streams.
From an environmental standpoint, the practice is lose-lose-lose. The mining process itself destroys habitats, displaces species, and damages the landscape. Reclamation generally focuses on structural stability and erosion reduction, not on the ability of the land to support life. It is often difficult for native (endemic) plant species to colonize the compacted terrain, and biodiversity suffers as a result. Transportation of coal involves the construction of roads, which are frequented by massive trucks. Finally, coal itself is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.
From a human standpoint, the case is not so cut and dry. Mountaintop mining is an important economic driver for the Appalachia region. In terms of resource extraction, it allows access to coal seams which might not otherwise be possible to reach. Perhaps most significantly, companies claim that it is offers less risk for the miners themselves than conventional mining. Recent studies, however, have shown that the local health impacts can be devastating. Toxic chemicals such as sulphur compounds produced during mining are often incorporated into valley fill or stored on site in settling ponds. Some of these compounds have been correlated to higher incidences of mortality, cancer, and heart and lung diseases in surrounding communities. Although the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were created in part to protect communities near industrial operations, contaminants can still be found downstream of mine sites.
A settling pond under construction
Even to the casual observer, strip mining manifests itself as a damaging and unsustainable process. It is a relic of an era when industry dominated environmental and health considerations, and its ongoing impacts on communities and ecosystems attest to poor management and irresponsible decision-making.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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Cover photo from Airflore, Flickr Creative Commons. All other images from Wikimedia Commons.