An Introduction to Mountaintop Removal
Published 19th October 2009 - 4 comments - 2708 views -
Coal has served as an essential element of the American energy landscape since the Industrial Revolution. Nature’s dirtiest fossil fuel, coal is the poster child of a longstanding mode of powering the human machine. It would be wrong to argue that energy from coal did not spur the rapid technological and industrial development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But as the threat of a worldwide change in climate that potentially includes an unprecedented rise in sea levels becomes a real issue in the international community, humanity’s contribution to global warming has also been thrust into the limelight. In the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, humanity’s chief contribution to a shifting climate comes from that hero of the Industrial Revolution, coal.
Coal, a hard black mineral composed of billions of dead plants and animals, takes millions upon millions of years to form under incalculable amounts of heat and pressure. For the past 200 years, the bitumous stuff has been relatively difficult and unsafe to extract, requiring underground mining that placed workers in extremely dangerous conditions. The coal industry did not thrive because of its safety record, however. To mine coal meant to provide jobs in a corner of the world largely forgotten by the rapid economic development of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The fossil fuel is still an integral part of the region’s economy, and traditional mining has been supplemented by new technologies including hydraulics and automation, rendering a much safer working environment. Coal workers have much to be proud of in a modern age. Virginia, for example, produces 45% of its electricity from the ancient rock, and the fuel has no doubt played an essential role in the state’s economic development (via americaspower.org, a political arm of the coal industry).
There is, however, a new trend developing within the coal extraction industry. A process known as mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is threatening the ecological, economic, and overall well being of one of the oldest and most diverse regions of the world.
MTR mining can be broken down into three distinct parts. In order to reach a coal seam, technicians must drill and place several hundred explosive charges throughout the mountain sited for mining. After the explosives are detonated, the millions of tons of leftover rock, rubble, and other fun materials (heavy metals, arsenic, etc…) that formerly constituted the top of a mountain are abruptly shoved into neighboring valleys, destroying hundreds of miles of streams, and virtually leveling a billion-year-old geological formation. Finally, a virtual fleet of giant vehicles, including massive dump trucks and dragline cranes, easily extract the exposed coal at the surface of the site. This practice is continued until the mountain yields no more coal, which sometimes does not happen until the entire mountain has been destroyed.
Furthermore, the practice of mountaintop removal has contributed noticeably to alarming levels of increased poverty throughout Appalachia. MTR mining does not employ the same number of workers as more traditional underground methods, and the region has suffered greatly as MTR becomes more popular. Hazardous materials contained within leftovers from mine sites contaminate groundwater, and many people are unable to drink from the spigot in their own homes. Dust from blasting contributes significantly to asthma and poor air quality, affecting children more than most. The industry has thus far failed to respond to the real humanitarian crisis occurring in Appalachia, and state and local governments are hesitant to challenge the only economic workhorse in the region. Most of the coal is quickly trucked off to locations across the world, and very little money returns to the mountains.
(image courtesy Wise Energy for Virginia)
Despite the fact that coal will, by necessity, remain a part of the United States’ energy portfolio for at least the next 50 years, the practice of mountaintop removal mining has no place in a country that claims to care for the well-being of its people and landscape. Without significant action on the part of federal and state governments, activists and private investors, mountaintop removal mining will destroy one of the world’s most unique and best-kept secrets before we know it. Over 700,000 acres of ancient mountains have been already obliterated.
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