Hole in the Earth
By Alison Hawkes
I’ve always wondered how mountaintop coal mining â€“ in which an entire peak of a mountain is blasted away to reveal the underlying coal â€“ could possibly pass U.S. environmental muster. You can’t even dump a soda can into a stream legally, so how does a company completely change the contour of a mountain, fill the excess pilings into stream beds, and call it a day?
Yet there it is, and despite a series of thorny legal challenges the practice has actually been increasing over the last 30 years and remains the dominant driver of land-use change in central Appalachia. Check out these images showing the growth of a West Virginia mine from 1984 to 2009. The images were snapped by NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite.
With good reason, mountaintop removal is finally getting its due. Bills in Congress come close to an outright ban, the EPA and Department of Interior are forcing mines to go through enhanced environmental review hurdles, and a paper published in January in the journal Science summarized, for the first time, the massive scientific evidence of mountaintop removal’s environmental damage.
The paper, Mountaintop Mining Consequences, documented a host of problems: the permanent loss of ecosystems through burial of headwater streams, loss of some of the most biodiverse forests in the country, erosion and flooding, toxic sludge, poisoned well water, and hazardous dust resulting in higher rates of cancer and heart, lung, and kidney disease in coal producing areas.
One other problem caught my attention. Mountaintop removal also destroys the natural system of carbon sequestration. Trees are removed and the remaining barren outcrop shows little or no vegetation regrowth and minimal carbon storage even 15 years later. The paper cited another study that projected a carbon storage of 77 percent after 60 years, compared to undisturbed areas in the same region.
We already know that burning coal as a fuel source accounts for some 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Add mountaintop removal and transporting all that coal, and emissions jump 17 percent higher, according to separate study published in Environmental Science and Technology.