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Heat Advisory: Protecting Health on a Warming Planet
by Dr. Alan Lockwood

Drawing on peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, Dr. Lockwood meticulously details the symptoms of climate change and their medical side effects.

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Mountaintop Removal

“Pervasive and irreversible” Damage in Appalachia

As 2010 opened, the controversy over mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining burst into the news with 12 leading environmental scientists calling for a moratorium on all new mountaintop mining permits. 

Mountaintop removal is a form of mining in which the mountain overlying the coal is blasted away with explosives.  The resulting rubble is then bulldozed off the mountain, filling valleys and streams below.  This technique is being used extensively in Appalachia, where it has destroyed mature hardwood forests over an area of 2,000 square miles – an area larger than the state of Delaware.  According to the EPA, an estimated 2,000 miles of streams have been buried.

In January 8, 2010 article in the journal Science, the 12 scientists -- hydrologists, ecologists and engineers -- argue that “the preponderance of scientific evidence” documents “pervasive and irreversible” environmental and human impacts from MTR.  They conclude that “mitigation cannot compensate for losses."

MTR is generally described in terms of its environmental impacts:  deforestation, destruction of healthy headwater streams, contamination of downstream surface waters, and damage to fish and wildlife. 

Yet mountaintop removal is also a health issue for people.  It releases substances such as selenium, iron, and aluminum into surface waters, contributing to water quality degradation.  Selenium, the most widespread MTR-related pollutant, bioaccumulates in tissue, where it can cause health and reproductive problems in humans as well as wildlife. 

The Science article authors, who include several members of the National Academy of Sciences, call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stop issuing new MTR permits. While acknowledging that scientists usually refrain from making policy recommendations, the article’s lead author explained that the findings were “so clear-cut” and that the damage done by MTR appeared to be “irreversible.”

Ironically, the same week the article was published, the EPA announced what it called “a path forward” on two MTR mining operations in West Virginia.  In one case it gave a green light to a critical water permit; in the other, it agreed to continue discussions with a mining operator about developing a revised mining plan – one that, if accepted, would permit another MTR mining venture.

The Science report authors note that surface mining for coal in Appalachia is associated with severe health impacts in coal-producing communities, including elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease.

Curious to know what MTR looks like?  For close-up visuals, see the videos on Yale Environment 360

Code Black on Coal

Action Alerts

  • Tell the EPA: Don't delay methane protections

    Tell the EPA: don't delay the proposed rule to capture leaking methane gas. Our health and the health of the climate cannot wait!

  • Tell Congress—defend the Clean Air Act against Big Oil!

    President Trump, his new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, and some in Congress are attempting to block or weaken clean air and climate protections like the Clean Power Plan. Tell your member of Congress to support full implementation of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Power Plan.

More action alerts»

Resources

  • Video: Fracking - Too Dirty, Too Dangerous

    Former executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Catherine Thomasson, MD, presents findings from PSR's report "Too Dirty, Too Dangerous: Why Health Professionals Reject Natural Gas". It is based on summaries of recent medical and scientific studies which clearly convey the health threats that accompany use of methane as a fuel. Read more »

  • Webinar: The Fight for Solar

    Solar energy is one of our best hopes for a clean energy future – yet some utility companies are trying to stifle the spread of rooftop solar. Learn more about the fight for rooftop ("distributed") solar. Read more »

  • Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) Fact Sheet

    RGGI has significantly reduced air pollution from fossil fuel power plants, improving the health of people living in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. Read more »

In the Spotlight

  • November 30, 2016
    Eating for Climate and Health
    PSR's new PowerPoint presentation on how climate change impacts food production, and agriculture's contribution to climate change.