Environmental Impact of Coal Mining in Appalachia Thesis

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Environmental Impact of Coal Mining in Appalachia

An aerial view of mountaintop removal mining


The issue of coal mining in the Appalachian regions has in recent years been the cause of much debate and contention. The central concern in this debate is the dramatic and severe impact that coal mining has had on the environment of the region. In the age of global warming and climate change the issue of the devastation of the natural environment through mining methods such as mountaintop removal mining (MRM) tends to evoke strong and critical responses. The following is one example of these critiques.

When it comes to coal, perhaps the only thing more controversial than what to do about the heat-trapping carbon dioxide it generates is what to do about the social and environmental costs of getting it out of the ground. Nowhere is the debate over how far we are willing to go for inexpensive energy more contentious than in the coalfields of the Appalachian Mountains, where technology and engineering have allowed the scale of surface coal mines to reach gigantic proportions.

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However, it should also be remembered that the history of mining in this region began in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and that the recent furor about coal mining in the region and new methods such as MRM or mountaintop removal mining is only the latest, albeit the most criticized, effect of coal mining in the Appalachians. This fact will also be borne in mind in this paper, which will attempt to provide an overview of the salient historical aspects of the development of coal mining methods in this region and the impact that they have had on the environment.

TOPIC: Thesis on Environmental Impact of Coal Mining in Appalachia Assignment

The following terse and succinct report on the condition of a mountain in the Appalachian region provides stark insight into the effects of cumulative coal mining and especially the more devastating effects of the more recent coal mining techniques. "... The mountain has been brought to its knees - cut down like a giant tree. Instead of gazing 200 metres up to its peak... you peer down at its rubbly remains, clawed at by giant shovels and trundled off by bucking yellow dump trucks.

It is estimated that approximately 500 mountains in the area of West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia have been destroyed in a similar way to the above description. This devastation has far-reaching implications, which refers not only to the direct effects on the natural fauna and flora of the environment, but also to the negative outcomes for the communities affected. "...Their homes have been flooded, walls cracked, wells poisoned, streams polluted; their jobs have been forfeited, cemeteries unearthed and communities abandoned. Many suffer from early-onset dementia and kidney stones. And they've lost their ancestral home."

While various traditional methods of extracting coal over the last century have all impacted on the assessment of environmental damage, the more recent use of the mountaintop removal mining is the most devastating. This method of mining is described as follows:

Instead of extracting coal the old-fashioned way, by burrowing, the mountain is extracted from the coal - blown up sequentially to reveal each black seam. Everything left over - trees, soil, plants and rock - is considered "overburden." it's dumped into the valleys below, filling them up."

2. The environmental history of Appalachian coal mining

2.1. Brief overview of mining activities

The history of coal mining in the Eastern United States begins shortly after colonization with"...large scale extraction commenced shortly thereafter."

The central area of Appalachia is known as a one of the largest producers of coal in the United States. Originally, the most common method of extracting coal from the ground was via underground mines. As has already been referred to, the more traditional forms of mining have been largely replaced by new methods such as strip mining which uses explosives.

While underground mines are still the most common form of Coal mining in Appalachia, surface mining has grown considerably due to the practice of mountaintop removal -- a type of strip mining that utilizes explosives to blast as much as 800 to 1,000 feet off of the tops of mountains to access underlying coal deposits.

The history of the environmental effects of earlier and more traditional forms of underground mining in the Appalachian region begins in the mid 1800s. The damage caused by these earlier mining methods is recorded in a 1906 report by State Geologist William Bullock Clark and his staff. This geological survey produced a Report on the Physical Features of Maryland.

As Baller, and Pantilat (2007) state of this report:

What Clark found, especially in Maryland's most heavily forested area - the Appalachian Region - alarmed him. In western Allegany County, in particular, where coal-company control of natural resources was all but complete, the forest cover had been largely removed. With regard to recovery, Clark was pessimistic, so much so that he recommended transferring ownership of large portions of western Maryland from private to public hands so ample time could be provided for regrowth.

The report refers particularly to the destruction of tress and natural fauna that was seen to be detrimental to the environment and ecosystem.

It is important to remember that the earlier methods of coal mining began the environmental damage that was later to become controversial in the development of strip mining and MRM. As one study in this regard notes;

Despite the considerable attention that has been directed toward Appalachia over the past thirty years, relatively little research has focused specifically on the historical environmental impacts of mining, lumbering, and other activities associated with expanding industrialization...Yet these remain important issues today in Appalachia, where the effects of past large-scale environmental modification are still being felt

In other words, while the focus is on the more contemporary use of strip mining and its deleterious effects on the environment, researchers point out that the decline of the environment as a result of mining has taken place over a long period of time and that the extensive effects of early industrialization and mining should be taken into consideration in an overall understanding of the present situation from an environmental point-of-view. For instance, as Buckley (1998) notes, "...western Maryland has been largely overlooked by historians and geographers studying southern Appalachia. Given the valley's early experimentation with new forms of transportation and its early experience with large-scale coal mining..."

This is also linked to the development and growth of the Consolidation Coal Company.

By the late1800s the coal companies has taken control of the region's mineral and timber resources and "The Consolidation Coal Company, in particular, had risen to prominence, moving into the lead among shippers of George's Creek coal"

It is also important to note that in the 1920s the Consolidation Coal Company was to become the largest commercial producer of bituminous coal in the United States.

However, what is of significance for the present discussion is that these earlier forms of mining methods and operations had an extremely negative effect on the natural environment. The following extract underlines this aspect clearly.

Historical evidence corroborates that by the second half of the nineteenth century, George's Creek was little more than a receptacle for industrial and domestic waste. No fish survived in it; no vegetation withstood its acidic waters. Its main purposes were patently to carry away the effluent from coal mines and to serve as "a public sewer" for the valley's inhabitants (U.S. Department of the Interior 1898, 27). Acid mine drainage, wastes from slaughterhouses, tanneries, distilleries, paper mills, stables, and sewer systems

This was to lead to a "new industrial order" in the early Twentieth Century in the region as evidenced by the rise of "company towns" or "coal camps." These earlier mining activities are described in many studies as having a disastrous effect on the environment.

The once majestic earth was scarred and ugly, and the streams ran brown with garbage and acid runoff from the mines. A black dust covered everything. Huge mounds of coal and "gob" piles of discarded mine waste lay about. The peaceful quiet of three decades before had been replaced by a cacophony of voices and industrial sounds.

The change from the more conventional methods of underground mining was due to a number of interrelated factors. These included corporate mergers and intense competition between mining companies. This was to lead to the search for more economic and effective mining technologies and methods, and the result was the adoption of "mountaintop removal strip mining." Because of [competition with] cheap western coal, mountaintop removal suddenly boomed in central Appalachia in the 1990s."

The development of large earth moving machinery was also an important factor which was to the increased feasibility and prevalence of mountaintop removal mining.

The amount of coal mining in the Appalachian area was to increase considerably in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. As one study notes; "...surface mining in West Virginia accounted for ten percent of the state's coal production in 1979; by 1999… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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