The Appalachian region of the United States, extending from southern New York to northern Mississippi, is home to more than 25 million people in 420 counties across 13 states. The majority of the Appalachian population is poor whites dispersed over large rural areas. The Appalachian economy is extremely reliant on mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, despite the low amount of jobs it produces.
Strip mining is approximately 2.66 times more productive than underground mining, in terms of short tons produced per miner-hour. Historically, as coal production increased from 1973-2006, the number of employees in the mines increased dramatically from 1973 to 1979 and great economic prosperity was brought to the land. The levels than began to plummet below the 1973 employment point. Between 1985 and 2005, employment in the Appalachia mining industry dropped by 56% due to increases in mechanization. Currently, there are only 6,300 MTR and surface mining jobs left in West Virginia specifically.
The first MTR project in the United States was established in 1970 at Bullpush Mountain, West Virginia. Until the mid 1990’s, MTR remained a small source of coal in the United States. It is now the major form of mining in West Virginia and Kentucky (the second and third largest coal-producing states, after Wyoming) and is also practiced in Virginia and Tennessee. Technological innovation, globalization and the rise in natural resource depletion have all contributed to the increase in MTR coal mines. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 also had a large impact on mining in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. These amendments encouraged companies to seek low-sulfur coal, abundant in central Appalachia. MTR mining uses explosives to blast away the tops of mountains in order to access all of the coal within the mountain. MTR has been completed on about 500 sites, altering some 1.4 million acres and burying 2,000 miles of headwater streams of water resources.
The MTR strip mining process involves the initial stage of exploration followed by an extraction stage. Boreholes are drilled or opened using explosives, and trenches and pits are dug. Land is cleared and roads are constructed. After roads are developed, mining companies clear cut the forests and the fragmented rock on top of the mountains with more explosives, in order to expose the coal seams. Exposing coal seams results in the leveling of mountain tops in the mountain ranges of Appalachia. Mountains in the Appalachian region have been lowered by 800 to 1,000 feet. Exposing coal seams also creates “valley fill,” the rubble or mine spoil then sits along edges precariously until it is dumped in the valleys.
Many Appalachia residents first encounter coal companies during the exploration stage of MTR mining. Residents are given letters offering homeowners a chance to have their property surveyed in case any damage occurs during blasting. The survey is supposed to make it easier to distinguish preexisting damage from the damage associated with the explosion. However, surveying is very expensive and most residents cannot afford to participate in the process, leaving them with no concrete evidence of blasting damage to their homes. Blasting cracks walls and foundations of houses, greatly reducing property values. Noise, dust and the property damage resulting from blasting are often the most common complaints from residents. There is also noise and dust created from the constant array of coal trucks hauling various materials in and out of the area.
Air pollution increases in Appalachia as the number of MTR coal mines grows. Particulate matter is blasted into the air, along with residue from the explosives. The clear cutting of forest that takes place to build mines leads to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. When deforestation and land transformation from MTR are included, life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from coal increase up to 17%. Water pollution is also a result of MTR mining that negatively affects the population of Appalachia. Water pollution occurs largely because valley fill is not considered an infringement on the Clean Water Act. Valley fill from MTR was ruled a violation of the Clean Water Act in a 1999 US District Court decision. Unfortunately, the meaning of “fill material” was redefined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) after fierce lobbying to have the decision reversed. A dramatic increase in the number of MTR projects resulted from this decision. The EPA reexamined the issue in 2009, threatening to use veto authority under the Clean Water Act to reverse permits issued by the ACOE.
Actions to limit the number of MTR projects have only occurred twelve times since 1972. The Obama administration’s veto on the largest MTR mining permit, Spruce Mine in West Virginia, was overturned by a federal judge on March 23, 2012. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the EPA is not authorized to withdraw a Clean Water Act permit that already was issued by the ACOE.
Legally defined as a pollutant or not, valley fill is definitely tied to stream health. Electrical conductivity, a measure of ion concentration, is used as an indicator of stream health. The EPA recommends electrical conductivity to not exceed 500 microsiemens per cm. In areas of most intense MTR mining, where 92% of watershed has been mined, a recent study revealed levels of 1,1000 microsiemens per cm. Gregory J. Pond, an environmental biologist with EPA Region 3 in Wheeling, and his team, showed that more than 90% of 27 Appalachian streams below valley fill sites were impaired as per Clean Water Act standards. None of the ten streams sampled in non-mined valleys were impaired. The Clean Water Act specifies that streams must be appropriate for “designated uses,” like recreation, human consumption of fish, and protection of aquatic life health.
Stream health is not only affected by valley fill, but “slurry” pollution as well. Slurry refers to the mixture of chemicals—clay, non-carbonaceous rock, and heavy metals—that coal is washed in directly after it is mined to reduce impurities and prepare for combustion. Slurry is moved by the gallon to impoundments that are found along the periphery and at various elevations in areas to MTR sites, often adjacent to coal processing plants. During heavy precipitation events, unlined slurry dams, or those lined with dried slurry are susceptible to breaching and collapse. In West Virginia alone, there are over 110 billion gallons of coal slurry permitted for 126 impoundments. Between 1972 and 2008, there were 53 publicized coal slurry spills in the Appalachian region; one of the largest was a 209 million gallon spill that occurred in Martin County, KY in 2000. Most of the 1,300 impoundments in the nation are poorly constructed, increasing the threat of slurry leaching into groundwater supplies, nearby bodies of water, or water supplied for household and agricultural use. If environmental quality issues in Appalachia are not addressed, the land, water and air will continue to decline, making it even more difficult to foster economic vitality in a region that truly needs it.
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