The problem with mountaintop removal mining, according to it’s critics is that it is destructive and unsustainable which benefits a few large mining companies at the expense of the local communities and the environment as well. A journal Science report in January 2010 concluded that mountaintop mining removal has serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices don’t even come close to covering. The deforestation that is the result of MTR, of which support several endangered species and some of the highest biodiversity in North America is reason alone for concern. Another problem with the environmental impact of MTR is with the burial of headwater streams by valley fills which causes the permanent loss of entire ecosystems which play crucial roles in the regions ecological processes. Other recent published studies have gone on to show the higher potential for negative human health issues which may be from either contact with streams or from the exposure to airborne toxins and dust or both. Hospitalization for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension have been elevated in regions as a result of county level coal production. The rates in these regions are also elevated for mortality, lung cancer, chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases.(1)
Mountaintop Removal Mining
What MTR primarily does is take the land atop mountains and deforest it, where the timber is either burned or sold. The top soil from the area is to be taken away and stored for later use to reclaim the mountaintop and re-plant it. Coal mining companies quite often are granted waivers from the reuse of the topsoil from mountaintop removal and can reclaim the mountain with a topsoil substitute if adequate amounts of topsoil are not present at the location of the mountaintop ridge. Once the topsoil and trees, shrubs and other groundcover has been removed, the companies use explosives to blast away what is termed overburden, which consists of the rock and subsoil which covers the coal itself. Once the overburden is removed for removal mining, it is the transported by front end loader or truck to other areas previously mined. These previously mined areas provide the most economical storage area as they are located near the active pit of exposed coal. If the ridge of the mountain is to steep to handle the amount of spoils produced then additional storage is needed in nearby valleys or hollows, which creates valley fills or hollow fills, and is of particular concern to many environmentalists, scientists, and ecologists, as well as local residents. These streams which are buried are lost forever and thus, one of the man made disasters which was preventable albeit for greed.
Once the coal has been extracted, the companies back stack the old overburden from the next coal extraction area onto the now coal free pit. After they complete the back stacking process and have graded the area, the old topsoil or a topsoil substitute is used to cover the overburden. Then they seed the area with a mixture of grass seed, fertilizer, and mulch which is made from recycled newspapers. The rest depends on the surface landowners wishes, and they can add trees if the pre-approved post mining land use is for forest or wildlife habitat, If the owner requested other land uses after successful mining operations, the reclaimed land may be used for pastures, economic development, or other uses. This entire process may result in the mountains decrease in height by hundreds of feet, and become one of the many man made disasters we should have overcome by now.
The EPA has estimated that in the Appalachian Mountains, 2,200 square miles or 5,700 square km of forests will be cleared by MTR sites by the year 2012, which is one of our man made disasters in and of itself. This deforestation ranges from Ohio to Virginia, but mostly in West By God Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, which are also the two top producers of coal in the Appalachian region. Each state is estimated to use roughly 1,000 tons of explosives a day for surface mining. The current estimates for land use is that in the U.S. alone, we will mine over 1.4 million acres by 2010, which amounts to an area of land that surpasses the size of the state of Delaware.
Legislation for this process of removal mining have been enacted, but has been done with much controversy and debates over the last decade, and several man made disasters arising from mountaintop removal. The SMCRA, or Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 is the primary federal legislation which controls and regulates the environmental effects of coal mining in the United States of America. There were two programs created by this act, one which was for regulating the active coal mines and the second one for reclaiming the abandoned mine lands. The Office of Surface Mining was also created which is under the Department of the Interior, to enforce and teach regulations, to fund state regulatory and reclamation efforts, and to ensure the consistency among the various states regulatory programs. Most coal extracting sites must be reclaimed to the land’s pre-mine contours and use, although agencies can issue waivers to allow MTR. In such cases the SMCRA mandates that the sire reclamation project must create “a level plateau or gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining.” Permits are required to deposit valley fill into streams, which is the point of many conflicts.
Man Made Disasters
Federal courts have ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act by issuing such permits on four different occasions. Massey Energy Company, which is a somewhat anti-environment type energy company, is appealing a 2007 ruling but has been allowed to continue mining in the meantime because “most of the substantial harm has already occurred,” according to the judge in that particular case and thus becoming one of our man made disasters from mountaintop removal. In 2001 the Bush administration appealed one of the rulings because the Act had not explicitly defined “fill material” that could legally be placed in a waterway. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers then changed a rule which then included the mines debris in the definition of fill material and then the ruling was overturned. There is a new bill in place what would revert this change by specifying that coal mining waste does not constitute fill material, which would disallow valley fills. Then again, in December of 2008, the Bush administration made a rule that changed the Stream Buffer Zone protection provision form the SMCRA which then allowed coal companies to place the waste rock and dirt directly into the headwater waterways from their mountaintop removal mining operations.
There are many more concerns and issues revolving around this topic, and more recently, last April, the EPA issued a draft of guidelines that will reduce the practice of valley fills, unless they complied with a higher standard. These guidelines were just one of a series of draft rules issued that propose to reduce the impact of mountaintop removal mining. These rules can be found HERE and you can voice your concerns at the regulations.gov site HERE or at the I Love Mountains.Org site HERE to stand up to big coal and tell them, “No, we don’t want our environment destroyed so you can make more money!”. The draft itself can be found HERE for the Effects of Mountaintop Removal Mining as an external review draft. This man made disaster tops our list for most preventable man made disasters but human nature and greed are powerful forces to be reckoned with apparently.
Updated 02/22/2012: As millions of pounds of explosives from mountaintop removal strip mining operations continue to devastate historic mountain communities in central Appalachia, a powerful new music video released this week and shown below by the beloved American Roots band Magnolia Mountain captures the haunting grief and stories of stricken families in America’s cradle of roots and country music.
For more disasters: Man Made Disasters List Part 2 The Dust Bowl
Statistics courtesy of M.A. Palmer et al. Mountaintop Removal Mining Consequences, Science, 8 January 2010, Vol. 327, p. 148.
This man made disaster of mountaintop removal mining should be banned, however the powers that be don’t care about the people, the communities, or the environment they are destroying, just their profits. Peace my friends!