Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Consequences of Mountaintop Mining

"Geoengineering" is a term used in the field of climate policy to refer to methods by which the earth, oceans, or atmosphere might be technologically adjusted to minimize the negative effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. One example is the emission of sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere, where they would reflect more sunlight away from earth, thereby reducing the so-called "greenhouse effect." Generally speaking, geoengineering remedies for climate change remain quite controversial, in part because people have qualms about human tinkering with basic geophysical or geochemical processes. But, of course, humans are already geoengineering the planet, and have been doing so for a long time.

One particularly nasty form of geoengineering is a form of surface mining referred to as "mountaintop removal," which has transformed the landscape and contaminated hundreds of miles of streams throughout central Appalachia, including West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia. "Mountaintop removal" means exactly what it says - the decapitation of mountains in order to minimize the costs for mining companies to access the coal lying underneath. After clearing the forests and stripping away the topsoil, explosives are used to tear the top layer of rocks. All of the removed materials - referred to as mining "spoil" - are then dumped into adjacent valleys, burying existing water bodies and contaminating them with cyanide and other mining chemicals. According to this article from Router's, mountaintop mining now provides approximately 10% of the nation's coal supply. But at what environmental cost?

Tomorrow's issue of the journal Science  (subscription required) carries an important and damning meta analysis of existing peer-reviewed studies, originally commissioned by the EPA, on the environmental and public health effects of mountaintop mining. The twelve reviewers found strong and growing scientific evidence that mountaintop mining causes "serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address." Despite the fact that existing US laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act require effective mitigation of water pollution from mining and reclamation of mining sites themselves, "mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biodiversity is reduced."

The authors further note that mining permits continued to be issued for mountaintop removal "despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses." Indeed, just today reported a surge in coal stocks based on yesterday's approval of a new mountaintop mine. And earlier this week, the EPA announced that it was considering lifting a hold on another mountaintop mine permit for the largest such mine in Appalachia.

Below are before (1983) and after (2004) pictures of mountaintop mining near McRoberts, Kentucky:

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