The sound of large machinery thunders atop the mountains as the noise reverberates through the valleys where many families complacently call home. A few weeks pass by, and the noises persist for several hours each day. There is a noticeable absence of trees where the machinery operates, as if the mountaintops had succumbed to male-pattern baldness. The industrial noises subside, and the unfamiliar ear would rejoice. However, the minute nuisance is quickly replaced with something more noticeable: dynamite. A series of explosions rumble through the valley, and the mountainsides begin to look less like rolling green hills and more like the rural equivalent of a controlled demolition.
This is a rough description of what it might be like to witness Mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a type of surface mining that involves literally blowing the tops off of mountains in order to obtain coal from the ground. This method has been credited as being more efficient, because it puts fewer miners at risk by not requiring as much underground mining. What MTR lacks in employee risk it makes up for with environmental destruction.
The process itself destroys the natural beauty of mountains across Appalachia and beyond, while continuing to wreak havoc on the local communities. The blasting causes cracks in the foundations of homes, and can be an unbearable nuisance if it is a frequent occurrence. Many residents of areas where MTR is prevalent have claimed that it causes an increase in flooding. A recent study showed that seven percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and over 1,200 miles of streams buried or polluted as a result of MTR.
However, coal companies maintain that the economic benefits outweigh the potential costs of this surface-mining process. Until recently, this contention was largely left unchallenged by factual rebuttals.
This month, however, a study conducted by Duke University researchers has, for the first time, compared the environmental costs and energy benefits of MTR. The results? To reach the current demand for coal in the US, “an area the size of Washington, D.C. would need to be mined every 81 days.” The study showed that 310 square miles of mountains need to be mined each year to meet the coal demands. Doing this would “pollute about 2,300 kilometers of Appalachian streams and cause the loss of carbon sequestration by trees and soils equal to the greenhouse gases produced in a year by 33,600 average US homes….”
These statistics spell disaster.
This is a recent study, and the first of its kind, but it provides a unique and troubling insight into the actual value of MTR. More scientific data is almost certain to arise in the future, and may cause coal companies to rethink the financial incentives of this destructive mining method.
Put simply and eloquently, the authors of the study administered a dose of empirical truth for coal companies to choke down: “Tremendous environmental capital is being spent to achieve what are only modest energy gains.”
Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining