Strip mining is back in the news; like the elephant in the room it just will not go away. The coal industry claims that Americans need the coal for energy, but at what cost?
Strip Mining – a Definition
One third of America’s coal is mined in the Appalachia using the strip mining technique called Mountain Top Removal which literally means the actual removal of the mountain top. The coal is found in the mountain stacked up in layers similar to the frosting in cake and mining operations are set up to remove the coal as effectively and as cheaply as possible. It used to be that mining operations dug tunnels into the mountain and retrieved the coal that way, but with the demands for energy and coal growing it became necessary to find quicker and cheaper ways to obtain the coal. In strip mining, the land is first bulldozed and dynamited to expose the bedrock and coal. Using some of the heaviest and biggest equipment that run on diesel, the top layer (called the overburden) is hauled away and is deposited into the valleys or put back onto the mountain when the operation ends. This effectively exposes the coal, which is mined and hauled away.
Environmental Impact – Water Resources
The waste sludge from coal mining is a toxic brew of mercury, diesel and other chemicals that are placed into unlined slurry dams, which in turn seeps into the groundwater and eventually finds it way into the drinking water supply. Overburden placed in valleys increase metal burden of the water or in some cases completely covering up the stream.
Environmental Impact- Air Quality
Strip mining affects the air quality in different ways. When all the vegetation is removed the ground is exposed the elements, causing windborne particulates. These naturally occurring particulates like arsenic and lead are harmless when in the ground but when airborne they can cause ailments that affect the respiratory tract when inhaled or a group of other adverse health effects when absorbed through the skin or ingested. The diesel engines of the onsite heavy duty equipment also release toxic particulate matter and toxic gases.
Environmental Impact – Ecology
The increase in soil erosion and metal loading affects the native aquatic life leaving behind fewer species. Ecosystems are truncated by the areas of bare ground caused by the abandoned mines. Despite the federal laws and regulations like Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environment Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Surface Mining and Control Act (SMCA) which are geared to reclaim the savaged ground, restoring the land is near impossible. Re-vegetation is difficult as trees almost always fail to grow leaving mountain tops that have been hydro-seeded. These new ecosystems support only a limited amount of wildlife.
The Future of Strip Mining
Strip mining has destroyed over 740,000 acres of forests and 1,000 miles of waterways. Just like the elephant in the room, something has to be done. A group called the Coal River Wind Project is proposing a wind farm on one mountain instead of having it mined. As of December 2008, there is a bill in the House called the Clean Water Protection Act if passed into law that would help save some of the streams in the valleys that are lost or compromised by the depositing of overburden. However, with the environmentally detrimental measures passed by outgoing President Bush in his final hours threatens not only the environment but the health of communities near coal mines and coal plants by allowing them to dump their waste in local streams and valleys. Hopefully, the new administration will be able to save us from the harms of the coal industry, that yet remains to be seen.