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Moving mountains

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on January 21, 2010


It shouldn’t come as news that a coal mining process that blows up mountaintops using high-powered explosives -- and then bulldozes the rubble into adjacent valleys -- causes environmental devastation, contaminates surface waters, harms fish and wildlife, and exposes humans to toxic substances.

Apparently it’s news.

The mining process, known as mountaintop removal, is widely practiced in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.  It has already resulted in the destruction of 2,000 square miles of mature hardwood forests – an area larger than the state of Delaware – and the filling of an estimated 2,000 miles of mountain streams.

A few weeks ago, 12 scientists concluded in an article in the journal Science that “the preponderance of scientific evidence” documents “pervasive and irreversible” environmental and human impacts from MTR.  The scientists considered their findings so clear-cut that they took the unusual step of calling in their article for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stop issuing new MTR permits.

For details, see the PSR website.

So how do we know it counts as news?  Because it made it onto the Colbert Report.  If you want some laughs along with your brief intro to mountaintop removal, check out this video clip, courtesy of the Huffington Post. 

Late-night TV is a useful way to get the word out to a wide audience.  However, we must take issue with one statement made by the Science article’s lead author.  In saying that, “Until we get to a more sustainable form of energy, we do need coal in this country,” she overlooks a host of problems due to coal – especially its deadly impact on human health. 

It’s worrisome that scientists can document the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, yet overlook the impacts of coal elsewhere in its “life cycle.” Personally I prefer calling it a “death cycle,” because coal contributes to serious illness and premature death not only through mining but through transport, combustion, and the storage of post-combustion wastes. 

Coal is also a major contributor to global warming, whose impacts on disease ranges, potable water supplies, agricultural crop production, mental health, sea level rise, extreme weather and other grave health problems are already mounting.

For health data on those impacts, don’t forget PSR’s recent report, Coal’s Assault on Human Health.

Then let’s talk about coal not just as a mining issue, and not just as an environmental issue, but as a health issue that affects the lives, and deaths, of us all.


Steve K said ..

Yes, coal is all of those things: a mining issue, an environmental issue, a health issue. It's also an economic issue, but not the way the industry wants to portray it. They would have us believe that we shouldn't curtail the mining or use of coal because so many people's jobs depend on it. Well, as I understand it, the industry itself has been mainly responsible for the steady decline of coal mining jobs during the last few decades by its reliance on mechanized mining methods. MTR uses a whole lot fewer people to get the same amount of coal that traditional mining methods used to use. But the solution to the MTR problems is not simply to use underground mining - because the preferred method of underground mining - LONGWALL MINING - is the ugly stepsister of WTR. Longwall mining is high-tech, low employment, method of underground mining that has its own host of environmental and health impacts on local communities. If all of the externalized costs of coal mining and coal use were factored into the energy cost equation, then renewable sources of power such as wind, geothermal, and solar would be recognized as being so much more practical.

January 22, 2010

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