Nvate Ndepth: Is Risky Business with King Coal Endangering Mountains in Central Appalachia?

By Carolina Luna

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a nonprofit legal organization based in Charlottesville, Va., published its 2012 Top 10 Endangered Places in the Southeast. The list aims to inform Americans about the environmental issues threatening several distinctive regions of cultural and ecological significance in six states: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. For example, the Dawson Forest in Georgia, the Savannah River in South Carolina and Georgia, the Catawba-Wateree River Basin in North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia are all listed. What is more striking, however, is that the Tennessee and Virginia mountains are considered endangered, too. According to the SELC, these mountains are endangered as a result of a mining process that flattens mountains to access the thin layers of low-sulfur coal, known as mountaintop removal (MTR). This popular mining method is responsible for wiping out 500 mountains, changing 1.4 million acres of land, and in devastating more than 2,000 miles of streams in Central Appalachia.

Weak federal and state laws, points out the SELC, have allowed coal companies to blow up the mountains—exposing hazardous materials into the air and water—with little consideration for the nearby communities and the environment. Neighboring communities have reported higher exposure to selenium and arsenic—both chemicals considered to be toxic and carcinogenic. Researchers, in addition, have reported that MTR mining threatens the biodiversity of the region. Coal companies, however, argue that their industry supplies nearly half of the nation’s electricity and provides jobs in the region, thus endangering the Central Appalachian Mountains is a small price to pay.

The Process of Surface Mining Coal in the Appalachians

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As a region, the Appalachian coalfields are the second largest producers of coal in the U.S., with the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana producing the most. The coal that is mined in this region is used mainly for the generation of electricity, but it is also used for steel-making and export. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on our present-day consumption levels, the country has enough coal to last more than 200 years. Currently, 70 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. comes from surface or strip mines.

In the 1970s, MTR mining emerged as a very attractive form of coal mining because of its convenience, low cost and it’s less labor intensive than other forms of mining. However, it was not until the 1990s that it became more widespread in Central Appalachia. This method was designed primarily as a form to extract the mountain’s multiple thin layers of coal. The mountain’s coal seams are generally too confined to be mined by conventional mining methods, as reported by writer David C. Holzman in the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal. To extract this coal, according to Holzman, coal companies first clear off all vegetation from the mountain. Trees are either burned or pushed down the mountainside. Then, the mountain is blasted up to 800 vertical feet with 2,200 pounds of ammonium nitrate explosives. The loose debris is scooped out by massive draglines and enormous haul trucks, thus exposing the coal seams. The blasting and digging can wipe off as much as 1,400 feet of elevation from the mountain. The loose debris is deposited into an adjacent valley, known as a valley fill, thus burying headwater streams. After the coal is mined, it is washed with water and chemicals. This toxic waste—a mixture of water, coal dust, clay, arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium, also known as coal slurry or sludge—is then leached into abandoned mines or in open impoundments. These impoundments are massive and dangerous. They are held in place by mining debris and often built in the headwaters of a watershed, making them very unpredictable.

When the mining is complete and the coal is bounded for the coal-fired power plants, reclamation takes place. The barren land is covered with plants, grass and trees. But such vegetation is difficult to survive on the coarse surface left behind. By removing the vegetation, mountain communities are at a higher risk for soil erosion and flooding, especially during heavy rains. Communities near MTR sites are more vulnerable to mudslides, flash floods, and dislodged boulders and trees, according to a study that was published last year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In addition, the study reveals that the explosions caused by the mining practice damages houses, buildings and infrastructure. High levels of arsenic appear in the drinking water near the coal mining areas and the blasts and vibrations are taking a toll on the mental health of those living nearby. Moreover, the study asserted that many unknown species and aquatic insects have most likely been buried under valley fills and have been affected by the polluted waterways.

Regulations and Restrictions of Surface Mining Coal

Before MTR mining begins, coal companies must acquire permits. First, they prepare and submit the Environmental Impact Statements. These statements evaluate the negative environmental effects mountaintop removal and valley fill might have on the area. Then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues Finding of No Significant Impact documents which overthrow any questions that appeared in the Environmental Impact Statements, by clarifying why the Corps has determined that there are no significant environmental impacts following from the granting of a permit. Surface mines, in addition, are responsible for obtaining a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is monitored under the Clean Water Act. MTR mines are also required to obtain a section 404 permit due to its dumping of soil and rock into streams and wetlands.

Currently, mining operations are regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act under section 402 regulates the toxic substances discharged into the streams by valley fills and under section 404, regulates the valley fills. The agencies responsible in administering these laws are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps and the environmental and natural resources departments of each state. In Tennessee, for example, the state permits coal companies to blast the mountaintops up to 1,000 vertical feet as long as they agree to reconstruct the area with piles of debris and sediment ponds.

Under the Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act, the coal industry is required to reclaim surface-mined lands close to its original settings, but the efforts made by the industry do too little to stabilize the areas to their previously healthy conditions or to regenerate wildlife. Instead, a loophole exists that allows coal companies to substitute the fertile topsoil from the post-mined areas to rocky land. This rough terrain is unable to support native plants or abundant biodiversity. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Many surface mines have been reclaimed so well that it can be hard to tell that there was a surface mine in the area.” Grassroots organizations like the Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Conservancy and Mountain Justice disagree and instead point out that it would take hundreds of years before such areas become fully reforested. Moreover, in a study conducted by professor Emily S. Bernhardt, of Duke University, and professor Margaret A. Palmer, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, argue that surface mining is irreversible because it “strips away vegetation and surface soils and mechanically alters the underlying geology, leaving behind a landscape that is fundamentally recontoured, [and it] requires centuries for the development of new soil horizons.”

In addition, a clause under the Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act allows coal companies to go without restoring a site to its post-mined settings, as long as they invest in a much better economic and social use than the land had before. Under this clause, prisons and a golf course have been erected on mountaintop removal sites. According to Arch Coal Inc., “reclaimed coal mine lands benefit the American people in two ways. First, the coal mine has been a source of jobs and ancillary economic activity, [because] each coal job generates an additional seven jobs, while providing affordable coal energy. [Secondly,] after mining, the land can become a more productive and attractive resource available for agriculture, forestry, recreation and other uses.”

Mountain Top Removal: Is it Good for the Economy?

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According to coal companies, MTR mining does not endanger the environment or communities because it generates jobs and provides affordable electricity to half of the nation. The National Mining Association asserts that each coal mining job creates 3.5 jobs elsewhere in the economy either in mining services or in the retail industry, but Arch Coal Inc. claims that it’s actually seven. Who is right? More than 130,000 people, claims the National Mining Association, are employed by the coal industry in 25 states and earn wages 60 percent higher than the average American. It also states that MTR mining “operations produce desirable high-wage jobs that are the economic engine of local communities, states and the region in which they operate.”

However, several grassroots organizations affirm that MTR mining is the least labor-intensive way to extract coal, and instead MTR mining decreases mining jobs in the region by replacing miners with massive machinery. According to North Carolina nonprofit organization Appalachian Voices, in Tennessee surface coal mining employs about 270 people whereas the tourism industry employs over 175,000 people. In 1940, the coal industry employed 130,457 people in West Virginia. By 2008 employment declined to 21,190 people. Instead of generating jobs in the region, coal producing counties are among the poorest in the nation. For instance, McDowell County in West Virginia, at one time was the highest producer of coal in the U.S., but it now suffers from a 32.6 percent poverty rate, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

In 2010, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonpartisan policy research organization, published a study about the impact of coal and renewables in Central Appalachia. The study shows that between 1985 and 2008 employment in the Appalachian coal mining sector declined by 79 percent due to increases in mechanization for MTR mining. As the levels of mining increased, so did poverty and unemployment—about 40 percent of the population in the Appalachians suffers from poverty. The study also indicates that once all the revenues and expenditures are considered, the coal industry presents a net cost of approximately $3 million for Tennessee taxpayers.

Alternatives to the Dependency on Coal

In 2010, 45 percent of the nation’s electricity was generated by coal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that the country’s coal consumption will gradually decrease by the year 2035 to 39 percent. But until then, the U.S. does not need to be dependent on this brownish-black sedimentary rock as a source of energy because there are alternatives.

coal mining in appalachia alternative energy fuel wind farm turbines

One source of abundant and affordable clean energy is wind. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind energy—generated by wind turbines—can produce 20 percent of the country’s power by 2030, but this is only possible if an additional 100,000 wind turbines are installed in the next 20 years. The wind energy industry can also create jobs, about 800,000 new ones, and increase the annual property tax revenues to $1.5 billion. And in the process of building transmissions, asserts the American Wind Energy Association, the private sector can create more jobs and develop rural communities. Consumers can also benefit greatly from wind energy by being protected against the volatility in fuel prices and in lessening the cost of blackouts.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, the wind energy industry is growing with the U.S. representing more than 20 percent of the world’s installed wind power. Currently, the U.S. has more than 47,000 megawatts of wind power capacity, with Texas leading that total with more than 10,000 megawatts of wind power capacity. There are 100 projects under construction in 31 states and in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, over 400 manufacturing facilities across the nation make parts for wind turbines such as towers, blades and assembled nacelles, which is a part of a wind turbine that houses the turbine’s wind generating components.

Another clean energy source that contributes to America’s renewable energy is biomass. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2010 about 4 percent of the energy used in the U.S. came from biomass fuels. Biomass is made of organic material from plants and microorganisms. For example, our biomass fuels are generated by wood, crops, manure and garbage. Biomass, in addition, consists of stored energy from the sun. When wood waste or garbage is burned it produces steam thus generating electricity or heat for homes and industries. By using biomass for energy, there can be a cut back on waste and reduced air pollution.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration also reported that in 2003 about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity came from hydropower. Hydropower uses water to make electricity and to power machinery. There are two methods in which hydropower can be produced, either in hydropower plants or by using turbines. Hydropower is a convenient renewable energy source because it can become available as needed. For example, engineers can control the flow of water using turbines to produce electricity on demand. Hydropower plants, on the other hand, create reservoirs that offer the public recreational opportunities like fishing, swimming and boating.

According to a recent study by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution, today’s clean energy economy employs more people than the fossil fuel industries. By 2010 it had employed about 2.7 million workers, who are mostly concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. And today’s clean energy economy offers more opportunities and higher paying jobs for low-and middle-skilled workers. In addition, investing in a clean energy economy also addresses the global demand for environmental sustainability. “Green” jobs reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect endanger species and prevent the further deterioration of the environment. Therefore, the renewable energy industry is cleaner than MTR mining, less destructive to the land and is creating more jobs.

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