The environmental impacts of longwall coal mining on surrounding communities in countries where it is practiced, especially in context to pollution and public health, are very severe. In this article, these impacts and their effect on surrounding communities have been presented with focus on the damage to the environment and the serious health concerns which have resulted from coal mining pollution.
Areas in the USA like the coal reserves of northern Appalachia, Clay County, Kentucky, West Virginia and the Southern Australia (especially the Illawarra region of NSW), employ longwall mining for extraction of coal. In the last decade, the technique of longwall mining has become the most prevalent mining method used in coal mining operations as it allows the maximum extraction of coal. Longwall mining is a technique of underground coal mining in which whole blocks of coal called panels, are extracted from the coal seam along the longwall face. As mining continues down the length of the panel, the top roof is allowed to fall in behind the forward moving longwall face or into the goaf.
Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining and Health Implications
Apart from the most obvious environmental impact in the form of subsidence (the lowering of the land surface under which the mining was carried out), other serious environmental impacts are caused by coal mining pollution. These documented include toxic dust which causes severe respiratory infections, contamination of underground water sources, heavy metal contamination, radioactive contamination of the environment, damage to river beds, mercury emissions, vast quantities of waste rock that need proper disposal and acid mine drainage from abandoned mines where water seeps in and collects. The costs to human health from coal mining pollution include asthma, cancers, cardiovascular illness, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases, birth defects in newborn babies, impairment of immunity, neurobehavioral diseases, diabetes, bone and blood disorders and renal diseases.
Longwall mining is carried out directly under riverbeds or close to agricultural areas and the direct environmental impacts include:
• Cracking of the riverbed and rock bars.
• Surface water is diverted to the shallow sub-strata.
• Floods or drying out.
• Erosion resulting in alteration of the natural habitats of rare species (Evans, 2000).
• Changes to stream of flow alignment.
• Changes to surface and ground water quality.
• Impacts on the land as well as aquatic life of the affected area (Kay et al, 2006).
Coal mining pollution has resulted in severe environmental impacts on the agricultural communities which live along the Appalachian corridor in the US and in many other parts of the world. The agricultural land of these communities has been destroyed, water sources are running dry and rivers are draining out due to subsidence and cracking of river beds. The coal mining pollution resulting from cracks in the riverbed has compromised the water quality, making it poisonous and unfit for human consumption. The destruction of the natural habitats of many species of flora as well as fauna, leading to subsequent reduction of biodiversity in the affected areas is very severe. The diversity and survival of the affected area’s flora and fauna is mainly dependent on the amounts of available moisture in the soil. As the moisture content is being depleted due to coal mining pollution, many species like the stream-dwelling seal and the northern two-lined salamanders (these are found near West Virginia streams) have shown a consistent decline in population over the years (Stout, 2004). The fertility and biodiversity of the area has been damaged irreparably due to lost aquifers, dried up streams and massive water pollution. The public health problems in surrounding communities resulting from coal mining pollution are on the rise.
Approximately 12.5% of the USA’s electricity is produced using coal. Longwall coal mining has become the most popular method of mining in the last decade in the coalfields of the Appalachia and in Illinois, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Serious steps have to be taken by all the stakeholders in order to mitigate the environmental damage and pollution which coal mining inflicts on the communities of the affected areas. There is need to control the damage inflicted by ongoing coal mining operations (NSW Coal Affected Communities, 2005; Darmstadter, 1999). There is also urgent need to consider restricting the establishment of new coal exploration (in response to rising energy demands) since the effects of coal mining pollution are very severe. Although coal mining provides vast revenues annually to the economy of the United States and fulfills energy demands, the impact of the environmental damage and the cost to public health can no longer be ignored. The hidden costs of coal mining pollution in terms of environmental damage and public health risks have to be mitigated through proper pollution management.
‘NSW Coal Affected Communities.’ (2005). Presented at the Greens NSW Coal Issues Forum held at Parliament House, April 2005. Retrieved on October 1st, 2010 from: https://archive.lee.greens.org.au/
Kay, D et al. (2006). ‘Impacts of Longwall Mining to Rivers and Cliffs in the Southern Coalfield.’ Coal Operators’ Conference, University of Wollongong & the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, 2006; 327-336.
Evans, K. G. (2000). ‘Methods for assessing mine site rehabilitation design for erosion impact.’ Australian Journal of Soil Research, 2000; 38; 231–247.
Darmstadter, J. (1999). ‘Innovation and Productivity in U.S. Coal Mining’. In Simpson, R. D. (Ed.). Productivity in Natural Resource Industries: Improvement through Innovation, Washington: Resources for the Future.
Stout, B. M III. (2004). ‘Do headwater streams recover from longwall mining impacts in northern West Virginia?’ Final Report, August 2004 for the West Virginia Water Research Institute.