Dealing with Coal Mining Effects

In an area of lush green wildlife and rolling mountains, disaster plagues the lives of many who live in the Adirondack area. Not only does mountaintop removal destroy the beautiful landscape that many residents treasure, but it leaves these people with alarming conditions everyday. Maria Gunnoe of Bobwhite, West Virginia, raised by a coal mining family and left land to raise her own family on, lives in constant fear of a disaster waiting to happen. Due to a mountaintop removal project launched in 2000, Maria’s property flooded 7 times in 3 years, even washing away the access bridge to her street and the family’s dog. Because of the threatening conditions, Maria has stated that her children go to sleep prepared to be ready at a moment’s notice to leave their house whenever heavy rain ensues. Now living in a community wrecked by land degradation and poverty, Maria cannot afford nor find anyone to buy her property and cannot provide her family with simple resources, such as clean water (Palone, 2013). Rather than fleeing and giving her community over to the coal companies, Maria is a leader in the movement to end mountaintop removal and organizes to strengthen legislation that is supposed to protect her rights. “This is absolutely against everything that America stands for. And I know that we have better options than this. We do not have to blow up our mountains and poison our water to create energy. I will be here to fight for our rights. My family is here, we’ve been here for the past 10 generations, and we’re not leaving. We will continue to demand better for our children’s future in all that we do” (Mountain Heroes: Maria Gunnoe, 2012, p. 1).

          Coal made it’s biggest impact as the United States entered into the Industrial Revolution in the 1740s and further expanded to become the largest domestically produced energy source. Coal is extracted through either surface strip mining, open pit mining, underground mining or mountaintop removal. Coal that is less than 200 ft deep in the earth’s crust is retrieved through surface strip mining done mostly by hand by coal miners (Fossil Energy: A brief history of coal use, 2013). Deep under ground coal is retrieved through underground mining or open pit mining, both of which require large machinery and often times explosives to remove layers of vegetation, soil, and rock beneath in order to access coal and destroy the natural landscape of the area (Morse, & Turgeon, 2012). As years progressed, the US piloted new technology such as steamships and railroads which not only burned coal but transported it across the country to new mills and factories for power. By the 1910s, over 750,000 coal miners were digging up 550 million tons of coal per year in order to power an expanding economy (Andrews, 2017). Due to the public’s demand for increasing energy use, mountaintop removal became drastically more appealing.  Specifically dealing with coal, world energy consumption has risen from around 80 exajoules in the 1940s to over 200 exajoules in the 2000s (Tverberg, 2012, figure 1). For size comparison, an exajoule is equivalent to 1018 joules, and one joule per second is equivalent to one watt (American Physical Society, Basic Units).  

          Coal remained a dominant energy source producing 12.3 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year in 1950 until the rise of petroleum grew to completely surpass these rates going from 13 quadrillion BTUs in 1950 to 35.3 quadrillion BTUs in 2009, diminishing the demand for coal. Coal has remained at almost half of the energy production than petroleum since 1950, making up only 26% percent of total BTUs of energy use production (History of energy consumption in the United States 1775–2009, 2011). As a way to keep costs down and take advantage of improving technology, mountaintop removal to become very popular in the late 1900s.

          Mountaintop removal (MTR), the most destructive of the methods, is when machinery removes all trees, soil and vegetation and then explosives are used to cut the summit of a mountain down between 600-800 feet to access the coal. The normal process begins with clearing trees on the summit and then using explosives to loosen the rock and topsoil. A machine known as a dragline is then used to dig into the rock and topsoil in order to expose the coal. This excess topsoil and rock is moved into areas known as valley fills (Morse, E.,Turgeon, A., 2012). Mountain top removal removes manual labor (miner) and turns to technology. From the 1980’s to the 2000’s, total production of coal increased as employment in coal mining declined (Woods & Gordon, 2011, p.808). Maria recalls a project very similar:

Frasure Creek Mining Company, which is owned by a foreign corporation, is blowing up my homeland. One day in 2007, a blast that I watched them prepare for five days went off close to my home. And of all this dust of course ended up right on top of my home. I’m not the only one. People across Appalachia are forced to deal with these conditions all day every day. Their water is poisoned, they’re covered up with dust, and no one is listening to what they’re saying. (Mountaintop Heros: Maria Gunnoe, 2017, p.1)

          Advancing technology and machinery has also decreased the labor demand in the coal industry by 56% between 1985 and 2005 (Epstein et al., 2011). In the past six years the percent of energy from coal in the U.S dropped from 50% to 38% (Ferber, 2013). During this time many plants have closed and new plants are on a smaller scale (Ferber, 2013).  Because of the sharp rise in construction costs and dropping costs of competitors such as natural gas, coal mining has become a larger investment than it is worth (Ferber, 2013). Also, many coal plants are becoming less useful and more costly with age: 60% of the plants in the US are more than 40 years old and updating them with the newest technology is more expensive than the coal they are producing (Ferber, 2013). Because of a changing economy and outdated technology, coal is becoming less and less lucrative.

          In addition to being an exhausted and less lucrative source of coal mining, MTR destroys natural waterways, leaks chemicals into streams, desolates vegetation and habitat, and leaves the area with years of landscape degradation (Morse, E.,Turgeon, A., 2012). In the Appalachian Mountain Range area of the US, including Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee, MTR has altered 1.4 million acres of land, buried 2,000 miles of streams, and leaked pollution in 2,500 miles of streams (Epstein et al., 2011). Pollution and landscape degradation make harmful impacts on wildlife, aquatic life and the surrounding ecosystems. Furthermore, MTR is estimated to only account for 5 to 10 percent of the total production of U.S coal, which is equivalent to less than 4 percent of our nation’s electricity (Butler, Wuerthner, & Tompkins, 2009, para 1). With such a minuscule amount of energy coming from this method, it is astounding to see the drastic long term impacts it has on the environment.

          A study conducted in an Appalachian valley fill in Virginia showcased various dissolved solids such as sulfate, bicarbonate, calcium, and magnesium in the streams through specific conductance (Clark et. al., 2016). Due to the sensitivity of the organisms in the water, contaminated water decreases levels of aquatic life in the streams and is very difficult to reclaim naturally (Clark et al., 2016, p.222). Researchers who studied Raccoon Creek, Ohio, found that conductivity levels were dangerously high due to minerals running off mining sites into watersheds. Conductivity is the measurement of the ease of travel for an electric charge to pass through water, which is usually higher than the standard 150 uS/cm in water with abnormal amounts of dissolved minerals such as sulfate or aluminum (Hopkins et al., 2013). 8 sites showed conductivity levels at more than 500 uS/cm, which is a level proven to impair stream ecology and biodiversity in aquatic species through ionic and osmoregulatory stress and impairs efforts to reclaim the water to it’s natural state (Hopkins et al., 2013). These sites also showed increase in unhealthy levels of sulfate and aluminum (Hopkins, Altier, Haselman, Merry, & White, 2013). In Raccoon Creek, sulfate levels exceeded the standard 40-60 mg/l in 22 of the sites and in 17 sites these measurements even exceeded 100 mg/l (Hopkins et al., 2013). Although sulfur is natural in aquatic habitats, high levels are toxic to plants and animals because it promotes the release of nutrients from sediments, therefore increasing biodegradation of soils (Orem, 2017). Similarly, elevated levels of aluminium lead to harsh environments for the aquatic life in the streams leading to a destruction of the existing habitat in the streams (Oram, p.4).  

          Many of these MTR and surface coal mining project are required to conduct a reclamation project, but these projects are rarely successful as negative effects from surface coal mining persist and degrade the natural landscape long after mining projects close. During the boom of mountaintop removal, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was passed. As part of the 1977 act, coal companies were forced to restore the land they have mined to approximately its original state by filling in large holes and valleys to their natural landscape; however, this is not often achievable due to natural forestry being unable to grow properly on disturbed topsoil (Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, 2012). Although these areas work towards restoration, most times they end up as a quarry, landfill, or flattened area with minimal natural vegetation.  For example, Racoon Creek, OH reclamation efforts on 27 of 30 of the tested sites were ineffective at regulating natural stream chemistry.

          Coal mining and mountaintop removal were created at a time when their effects on the environment and the economy went ignored, but with all the evidence today, it is clear how detrimental these processes are to a continually growing society. MTR methods should be removed from the energy production industry for the sake of the environment and the economy. The environmental toll MTR has in mining regions is irreversible and leaves lasting damage on the landscape and those who live in the affected areas. Coal mining jobs as a whole have been on the decline since the 1950s and are continuing their downward slope due to increased technology and decreased demand for coal. There is a common fear among Americans that a loss of the coal industry will make huge negative impacts on local economies. However, these jobs can be replaced in larger and more lucrative amounts. Replacing MTR with green energy will create and restore jobs, the economy and provide a long term, clean energy. Although coal is thought to be one of the largest and cheapest energy sources, today’s coal has hidden costs piling up to about $345 billion a year due to endless effects in health and pollution problems which taxpayers absorb (Epstien et al., 2011). These hidden costs result in 18 additional cents per kilowatt hour of electricity from coal, making it one of the most expensive resources (Epstein et al., 2011).

          One of the most dangerous cost of coal in society is its power over climate change. Power plants use enough tons of coal each year to equate to around 20 pounds of coal for every person in the U.S., all of which is burned and released back into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect (Grandia, 2012). Coal burning in the U.S produces 81% of the CO2 emissions from the energy sector (Epstein et al., 2011). Emission from MTR add 17% when considering a decline in the carbon cycles because of deforestation and land transformation (Epstein et al., 2011). When CO2 is released into the atmosphere at such rapid rates, the natural carbon cycles of the earth cannot absorb the excess and this causes the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, and therefore global warming (Ichoku, 2017). Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1880, average global temperatures rose 0.8 degrees celsius or 1.4 degrees fahrenheit, which has already began affecting ocean temperatures and natural cycles such as freezing days and droughts (Ichoku, 2017). Increasing temperatures will cause more rise in sea level and degradation of ecosystems, adding costs for reclamation and new infrastructure on the world’s coastline (Ichoku, 2017). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there are currently 402 ppm (or mg/L) of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is expected to continue to grow unless drastic changes are made in to prevent carbon emissions. If measurements are kept below 450-500 ppm by the year 2100, temperatures should remain below 2 degree celsius change from pre-industrial levels. By achieving these restrictions, the IPCC claims there will be significant cost reductions for mitigation, human health, ecosystem health, and private costs among societies across the world (Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K., Meyer, L.A. 2015).

         In addition to its contributions to climate change, coal emissions also contribute to poor human health. Approximately 36,000 Americans die prematurely due to power plant pollution alone; and from the years of 1992 to 2002, 12,000 coal miners died due to black lung disease (Grandia, 2012). Black lung disease develops from inhaling coal dust, damaging lung tissue and function, which in turn leads to other lung related problems such as bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Thompson, 2014). Not only is coal mining impacting its workers and miners, but also the communities that surround the power plants. Coal mining facilities release toxic mercury, which impacts the livelihoods of the seafood and freshwater fish humans consume and it is getting into the blood and breast milk of mothers raising their babies (Grandia, 2012). Mercury in humans bodies impacts brain functions and can lead to learning disabilities, problems with coordination and lowered IQ (Grandia, 2012). In a study conducted at Harvard University,  Epstein et al. (2011) found that coal mining related toxins and pollution has led to 2,800 cases of lung cancer and 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks as well as endless hospital visits (p. 85). Using data from the EPA, it was estimated that total health costs from coal inflicted issues in the U.S alone was $7.5 million in 2008 (Epstein et al., 2011, p 75).

          Costs of coal ($345.3 billion) are outweighing the diminishing benefits of this method for coal extraction and could be replaced by more sustainable and economically sound resources. By removing the most harmful of methods, MTR, from the options of coal extracting methods and introducing more environmentally sustainable sources of energy and restoration projects, both sides can move towards a tolerable equilibrium of a healthy environment and thriving economy.

          Just with MTR ended and replaced with alternative energy, new jobs will boost the economy without continually harming the natural landscape. In 2013, Senator Rand Paul (R) , Senator Joe Manchin (D) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D)  stated that environmental regulations were destroying the coal industry by decreasing the number of jobs for coal miners (Reis, 2013).  However, regulations are not the cause of the decline in coal mining but rather it is the emerging technology. From 1983 to 1989 under President Reagan, the number of coal mining jobs went from 79,000 to 64,000 in the states of Kentucky and West Virginia (Reis, 2013, p.6). During the George H.W. Bush’s administration, the number of coal miners dropped to 56,000 in both Kentucky and West Virginia essentially ending with only 33,000 total coal miners combined for both states by the end of Clinton’s administration (Reis, 2013). Just in West Virginia, the number of workers went from 126,000 in 1948 to 15,000 by 2005 (Grandia, 2012).  The number of coal jobs have declined both under Republican and Democratic presidents despite their interests in lax regulation or creation of strict regulations. The declining number of workers can be attributed to the switch from manual labor to machinery, more valuable alternative energy and the hidden costs of coal mining (Grandia, 2012).    

          It is without question that coal mining industry is already having negative impacts on the economy, however, with compromise the U.S can profit while also becoming more environmentally friendly. Wind energy is a clean, domestic and inexhaustible source. $8.8 billion were invested into wind energy in 2016 and created 101,000 jobs in just a year (N.A, 2017 U.S Energy and Employment Report). Since 2015, there has been a 32% increase in employment in the wind industry, 37.2% of those jobs being construction, 29% in manufacturing and the rest in trade, professional services, and utilities. On the other hand, coal electric generation and coal fuels generation through all methods employs a total of 160,119 Americans, suffering a 24% decrease in employment in the past year alone.  A majority of this population working in mining can provide an overlap in skills and job similarity to wind energy (U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 2017). On a national level, the U.S Department of Energy estimates a generation of 500,000 jobs in 13 years in order to achieve 20% wind energy by 2030 (20% Wind energy by 2030: increasing wind energy’s contribution to U.S electricity supply, 2008). While wind energy is recruiting American workers at a similar rate to which coal energy is losing them, the gap between the two industries employment can be closed.

          A single modern wind turbine has three 70 meter blades on top of 60-80 meter tower and takes a maximum of 100 meters of land in diameter, usually installed in farms of 30-150 towers. Energy generated from wind costs between 3-6.5 cents/Kwh. If one turbine takes up a maximum of 100 square meters and a farm of 150 towers were to be built in Appalachia, this equates to 1,500,000 square meters, or about 370 acres (20% Wind energy by 2030: increasing wind energy’s contribution to U.S electricity supply, 2008). MTR has altered or flattened 1.4 million acres of land, all of which is viable for a wind farm, and coal has hidden costs alone of 18 cents/kwh (Epstein et al., 2011).

          In 2007, activist group Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) and the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies studied Coal River Mountain, West Virginia, in order to defend the peak’s integrity from a mountaintop removal project. The firm’s economic analysis concluded that a 328-megawatt wind farm would power 70,000 homes and would take between 50-100 acres of land depending on the type of wind turbines used (Haltom, 2010). By using a model created by National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the American Wind Energy Association, it is calculated the land already flattened by MTR has the potential to house 220 two megawatt wind turbines (Haltom, 2010). This project would generate more long term jobs and have greater local tax revenues than the proposed mining project. The estimated $1.74 million per year in tax revenues from wind would be 50 times higher than $36,000 per year for 17 years from the mountaintop removal operation (Haltom, 2010). Although coal mining jobs may still be  necessary in the first years of transition, each wind farm will initially employ at least 277 temporary positions with an additional 40-50 permanent jobs over a longer period of time. Furthermore, even if the wind farm were created, coal mining underground would still be accessible to support energy use and jobs if necessary (Haltom, 2010).  

           It is clear how harmful coal mining can be to local environments and a changing economy. Coal mining has been proven to release harmful chemicals into local water, which negatively affects stream chemistry and therefore aquatic plants and animals in surrounding ecosystems. The effects of coal mining, especially MTR, are destroying entire landscapes as well at their surrounding communities, such as Maria Gunnoe’s hometown of Bobwhite, West Virginia. Wind energy technology developed to combat the amount of energy the U.S receives from coal at a competitive cost. If MTR was replaced with wind energy, our energy requirements would be sustained at a lower environmental impact and be far more lucrative for the surrounding communities and the U.S economy. In order to save thousands of ecosystems across America from further destruction from coal mining and save the communities affected in terms of health, poverty and habitat destruction, a switch to renewable energy needs to be made.


Santoshi Nadimpalli – Environmental Science

Elise Fabbri – Building and Construction Technology

Patrick Carroll – Animal Science


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