EPA blasts mountaintop removal

The EPA recently delivered a blow to the controversial method of mountaintop removal (MTR). MTR allows miners to gain access to coal seams deep in the Appalachian Mountains and is primarily used in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In each of the several steps between removing the mountaintop and delivering the coal, the process drastically affects water quality around removal sites.

A New York Times article, by Tom Zeller, details the tougher water guidelines the EPA rolled out last Thursday. These guidelines will make it more difficult for valley fill operations to obtain a permit. The National Mining Association had two principle objections: first, that the guidelines were issued without a period of public comment; and second, that the guidelines would result in fewer jobs for the region.

How productive is mountaintop removal? iLoveMountains.org, quoting the EPA, says that MTR accounted for less than 5% of total US coal production as of 2001. A US Geological Survey Professional Paper shows that most of the remaining coal in top-producing Appalachian mines is “thinner, deeper, and higher in ash and sulfur than the coal that has been mined.” So, miners will have to work harder to retrieve coal that is lower in quality.

Not even the EPA, however, wants to completely stop MTR. Lisa Jackson, EPA’s administrator, said in an interview with the NYT that “[t]his is not about ending coal mining. This is about ending coal mining pollution.” The problem is that mining companies get many waivers regarding cleaning up. In theory, they are supposed to return the mountain to an approximation of its prior appearance. Even in theory, if they could return it to an approximation, they could not replace all of the trees and wildlife destroyed by the removal. And they have not even been trying since they have been allowed to leave their waste in the Appalachian streams, causing myriad health problems for nearby residents.

Which brings us back to the new guidelines. They are a step in the right direction toward stricter regulation of this terrible practice. Perhaps eventually it will be phased out, and the mountains can return to their isolated, sleepy state.

A note regarding the National Mining Association’s complaint about losing jobs: they should know better than anyone that the rise of MTR coincided with a loss of mining jobs, since heavy machinery takes workers’ place. See this graph from iLoveMountains.org:

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “EPA blasts mountaintop removal

  1. devinq

    The idea behind mountain top removal mining has always intrigued me. As you said in your blog, the mining companies are required to return the mountain the same condition it was before the clearing, but I wonder how possible that is. The amount of work to the return all the destroyed wild life to the area seems too unrealistic to achieve, and hardly seems worth it for 5% coal production.
    However, as an engineer I find the actual process of mountain top removal to be interesting. Ten years ago the idea of blowing up an entire mountain would seem ludicrous to me. The blog explains the legislation about mountain top removal but I thought it would be beneficial to explain just how mountain removal mining is practiced.
    First the top layer of soil is removed. In removing the layer of soil all wild life that is profitable to evacuate is collected, such as lumber, ginseng, and goldenseal [2]. However, while the soil that is removed is suppose to be collected, this requirement is often waivered, as the previous blogger mentioned. Following the clearing of the soil, miners use explosives to destroy the overburden in order to reach the coal deposits [1]. A machine called a dragline is used to clear any remaining rock on the coal. These machines are huge in stature, having a base as large as a gymnasium and being as tall as a 20-story building [2]. As the blogger mentioned, many miners lose jobs during a mountain top remover, and the machinery used is part of the reason that miners are no longer required. Finally, a front-end excavator scoops out the useable coal which will then be transferred to processing plant [1]. The final point of business is to then rebuild the mountain as it was, but as mentioned previously, the land is often left unfixed.
    While I find the whole process fascinating, I do believe the loss in wildlife is too high of a price to pay for the coal deposits. Also, the damage done to the local economy is another high price to pay for additional coal prices. If anyone can provide a less detrimental process I would love to hear it, but until then I would have to vote against mountain top removal.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountaintop_removal_mining – Wikipedia

    [2] http://www.mountainjusticesummer.org/facts/steps.php – Mountain Justice

    • alexoddo

      Just like Devin, my vote is against mountain top removal. “Returning a mountain to the same condition it was before clearing,” to me, sounds like an unrealistic requirement inserted in legislation by a policymaker heavily influenced by the mountain top removal business. As someone who used to go on “treasure hunts” as a kid, I know that even a small hole in a once green yard can’t be dug up and replaced without getting caught by mom and dad. So when these grownups go looking for their treasure and start blowing the tops off of mountains, it makes a scar in the earth that is a lot easier to find. After the coal is retrieved, “bottom-line” business sense says to invest the lowest amount of time and money into making nature “good as new”. If possible, as the above commenter mentioned, mining corporations will argue that after clearing and mining operations are over there is no need to return the site to normal. It’s a corporation’s job to make money, not to make squirrels and deer happy.

      Corporate respect for the environment, in my opinion, is best represented by the biggest and bestest corporation around, ExxonMobil, and their response to the Exxon Valdez spill. ExxonMobil has only recently (2008) started paying out the settlement to those affected by the 1989 oil spill. Almost 20 years later people are starting to see money that has been talked down to a sum that is 10 % of the original settlement decided on in court in 1996.

      Getting a company to pay for damages to the environment after the fact is a losing game. Policy should restrict mountain top removal completely, or place a price so high on permanently disfiguring the landscape that the process is no longer profitable.

    • Allison

      Hey devinq, thanks for providing the process steps. I actually wanted to put them into the post but figured it would make it too long. Glad everyone likes my post!

  2. tommurphy87

    What I find interesting is how often opponents to wind energy claim that wind turbines “ruin the landscape” of the site on which they are located. It seems to me that the best way to destroy the view of a mountain is to cut down all the trees on top of it, strip it, and leave it bare.

    This blogger brings up a valid point about the ecological consequences of coal mining that are often overlooked in today’s carbon-centric debate on energy. Recently it seems like the environmental impact of an energy source has become synonymous with its greenhouse gas emissions. On the Clean Coal website (http://www.cleancoalusa.org/docs/commitment/), advocates of clean coal claim that it is clean because carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing. The website’s page about the environment makes zero mention of coal’s harmful effect on water quality and land quality.

    By explaining coal mining’s ugly footprint on the land and natural habitats surrounding a mine, this blogger effectively refutes Clean Coal’s claim that “There has never been an environmental challenge facing the coal-based electricity sector for which technology has not provided the ultimate solution.”

    However, looking past carbon emissions to determine whether a new energy technology is eco-friendly needs to apply to all new technologies, not just fossil fuels. When we talk about how great electric cars and photovoltaics are for reducing emissions, the dialog must also address environmental impacts of lithium-ion batteries and silicon mining.

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