A Look at Coal Mining

While we at Public Citizen Texas are fighting the building of new coal power plants in Texas and the surrounding states, the focus has largely been on the CO2, sulfur and other pollutants emitted into the air by the burning of coal, not to mention its inefficiency as a fuel source. We often over look or neglect to think about the huge environmental destruction associated with getting coal out of the ground, as well as the history of health and safety risks associated with coal mining.

Historically these issues were brought up as some of the biggest objections to the use of coal as an energy source. One just needs to listen to John Prine’s “Paradise” or read any of the works by Wendell Berry on the topic (both document destruction caused by strip mining in Kentucky) to see how important the impact of coal mining was to environmentalists of past generations. This shift in focus has in no doubt been due the transfer of mining away from more populated regions to remote regions like the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming.

Traditionally coal mining has taken place underground and has been done by miners with shovels and picks (often exposing workers to dangerous and health compromising conditions). This is still the image of coal mining that resides in America’s popular consciousness. However this image is no longer accurate, as 67% of America’s coal is now extracted from the earth above ground. Surface mining techniques have become very popular for coal production since the development of steam shovels in the early twentieth century. Surface mining techniques revolve around removing the layers of Earth (overburden) above with large machines to expose the coal field to the surface where workers can easily extract it. This technique can be used to extract coal that is up to 200 ft deep within the Earth.

The United States burns over a billion tons of coal annually and the open mines needed to feed this appetite are enormous. The open pits can cover several square miles and alter the landscape beyond all recognition. As shown above, the surface is thoroughly ripped apart and we are left with hellish, empty landscapes populated by enormous mining and transporting machines. Explosives are initially used to open the mines, and any ecosystems that reside above them are destroyed, as are those where the displaced overburden is kept.

During mining waste rock (which is material that is extracted, but lacks commercial value) is deposited in a tiered waste dump, which is flattened and covered with soil and a layer of clay during the mine’s rehabilitation process. Rehabilitated wasted dumps are also covered with vegetation to provide further stability. Oftentimes they contain sulfides that produce sulfuric acid when they are exposed to oxygen (not to mention heavy metals which are also highly toxic). This causes what is known as mine acid drainage, which is extremely destructive. It is acknowledged that the acid in these dumps does eventually leach out as the external layers of soil and clay erode. The long term effects of this are still being studied, but it is hoped that this technique prevents the waste dump from leaching toxic substances faster than the environment can accommodate them.

As the processing of coal continues, tailings (which are processed ores, usually in a liquid slurry, and often contain toxins such as cyanide and sulfide minerals) are put into an settling pond where water evaporates from them. Different facilities use different techniques of storing tailings. In the pasts tailings have leached into soil and groundwater causing public health and environmental problems. There has been a strong push in recent years for reprocessing tailings and discontinuance of unsustainable tailing storage practices for all types of mining (not just coal). The process is known for blasting sulfur heavy coal dust and other pollutants into the air, as well as destroying the once heavily forested landscapes where the procedure usually takes. Local citizens and environmentalist frequently protest against this procedure, which is usually seen as benefiting a small minority at the

A once forested mountain top

A once forested mountaintop

Of all forms of open pit mining Mountain Top Removal is by far the most environmentally destructive. It has primarily been used for coal mining in the Appalachians, and it uses explosives to remove up to the top 1,000 feet of mountains to expose the coal below, leaving the land useless afterwards in almost all cases. It is frequently protested by environmentalist and local residents, as it is seen as benefiting a small minority at the expense of local communities.   In spite of this several Mountaintop removal projects that will destroy a total amount of land larger than the state of Delaware by 2010.  This is especially disheartening when we realize that much of this destruction will take place in the Appalachian mountains which houses the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world.

Mining the Tar Sands

Mining the Tar Sands

It should be noted that similar open pit techniques are used for mining Bitumen (an extreme form of crude oil) in Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands, which is becoming an increasingly important source of petroleum for the United States. This open pit mining and the refining of the tar sands constitutes a major environmental nightmare, despite its being a secure and increasingly more cost effect source of petroleum.

Americans want an energy source that is cheap, clean and secure. While coal and oil sands are cheap and secure, they are definitely not clean, and if the externalized environmental costs of their use and mining were included in their price, they would be some of the most expensive fuels on the market. I hope this has reminded our readers that there is more destruction associated with these fuels than just the emissions that are produced by burning them.