We mine over a billon tons of coal every year in the United States. Around 20 percent of that comes from central Appalachia, where a type of coal mining called mountaintop coal mining is used for about 95 percent or more of the strip-mining. This form of mining is full of controversy and for good reason.
What is mountaintop coal mining?
The EPA's definition:
“Mountaintop coal mining is a surface mining practice involving the:
- removal of mountaintops to expose coal seams, and
- disposing of the associated mining overburden in adjacent valleys -- "valley fills”
Basically the area must first be cleared of topsoil and vegetation, the trees are rarely used commercially and instead are just burned or dumped illegally into valley fills.
Then, the coal and debris is removed using enormous machinery known as draglines. Draglines stand more than 22 stories high and can hold 24 compact cars in the bucket.
In 2002, the Bush administration changed the definition of “fill material” in the Clean Air Act to include toxic mining waste. This means the waste or debris can be dumped into nearby valleys called “valley fills.”
The coal is then washed and treated. This process creates a toxic slurry that contains chemicals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium. The coal is then shipped to power plants for burning.
The law says that the coal companies have re-plant vegetation but they often receive waivers from state agencies. It can take up to hundreds of years for a forest to reestablish itself on the sites.
Overall, this form of mining comes with many risks, ranging from spills of the toxic slurry, damages to homes from falling debris when they blast the mountain, mercury in the area around the mines, loss of habit for animals, and so much more.
I live in Oklahoma and while this form mining isn’t near me, not far from me in the town of Bokoshe they are dealing with an issue that comes with using coal, fly ash. Fly ash is the toxic by-product of burning pulverized coal. Bokoshe is home to a fly ash dump site. The ash blows around and is getting in people’s homes and harming their health.
The fly ash contains things like mercury, arsenic, hexavalent chromium (you may know it from Erin Brockovich, it’s the chemical that made her famous), lead, and more. Respiratory problems are very common in Bokoshe and it’s the sad truth of what coal is doing to us.
I do feel some effects from coal because I live just over 2 miles from a cement kiln that burns coal and fly ash (as well as many other toxic things), so the harmful chemicals are in the air around me as well. I have asthma so they are even more harmful to me than those with normal lungs. Coal doesn’t just harm our environment, it harms us.
What Can You do to Stop It?
It’s estimated that each person uses around 3.4 tons of coal a year, while that is just a small percent of what is mined each year we can still make a difference. Here are some ideas for things you can do.
- Reduce your energy use. Simple things like using power strips so you can stop vampire power, when replacing appliances choose Energy Star certified products, turn off lights and electronics when not in use, and other easy things like that.
- Get an energy audit. An energy audit can help you reduce your energy use even more. Many power companies will do them very cheaply or even for free.
- Call your power company and ask if they have a green energy option. Often you can pay a little extra to buy energy credits that help fund green energy.
- Check out the other actions at ILoveMountains.org
- Watch The Last Mountain, an informative documentary about what mountaintop coal mining is doing to our environment. The film is currently available on Netflix steaming.
Together, we can end mountaintop removal mining and push for a clean energy future.
More from living