Mountaintop Removal Mining is a process where explosives are used to essentially blow up and remove the top of a mountain in order to expose seams of coal within. First, the mountain is deforested, and local animal life driven out, then the blasting is done. The waste material is then usually dumped into adjacent valleys, often clogging, polluting and disrupting local streams. Needless to say, this is very environmentally damaging.
Mountaintop removal mining is most active in the Appalachian Mountains region in the eastern United States, impacting states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Local communities in these areas have been seriously affected by this process and many local groups have been organizing to stop it.
There are many serious environmental impacts from mountaintop removal. Deforestation is one problem, of course, since the Appalachians are heavily forested. These are not bare peaks that are being removed, but forested areas containing a wide variety of plant and animals species. Many streams have been diverted or completely buried, which is putting pressure on many species of fish, and on the wildlife that depends on them. Biodiversity in general is being reduced in these areas.
The process of coal mining can introduce many toxic chemicals into the local environment as well, as the coal must be processed in order to separate it from other debris. Much of this waste is often stored in sludge dams, which can slowly leak over time. This has made the drinking water unsafe in some areas and led to health problems. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has itself said:
The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns.
Arguments have been made by the coal industry that these sites can be restored after the mining has been completed. New topsoil can be brought in, trees planted, and animals can return. However, a new study in the journal Science has disputed this, and a group of scientists has called for an immediate moratorium on permits for mountaintop mining. They say:
The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.
Of course, another significant problem is that this whole destructive process, which also generates a great deal of carbon emissions, is being done to extract coal, one of the dirtiest forms of energy there is. The use of coal in power production can generate twice the carbon emissions per unit of energy as compared to oil. Despite efforts in the eighties to cut back on coal-fired power plants, primarily because of acid raid, almost half of US electricity is still generated using coal.
We already know that if we were to burn up all the remaining oil reserves that have already been discovered, this would result in global warming far beyond the current worst-case projections. Nevertheless, we continue to prospect for new sources of oil, even though we know we could never actually use it all. Coal is even worse than oil for carbon emissions, yet we are resorting to extreme methods, such as mountaintop removal, to keep getting more. This is clearly insane.
The solution to this problem is relatively straightforward. We need to put a moratorium on all new coal plants. Environmental regulations in the US already make it extremely difficult to open a new coal plant, so this should just be made official, no new plants, period. There is already a fair amount of political support for this. Then, over time, existing coal plants need to be decommissioned. Again, plans already exist for this in many cases, this just needs to be formalized and accelerated.
Once the demand for coal is limited, and then gradually reduced, there will no longer be any reason for mountaintop removal, or coal mining of any kind. As George Monbiot is fond of saying, we already have an extremely effective and proven method of carbon sequestration, that requires no new technology or expense. It's called leaving fossil fuels in the ground. In the case of coal, especially, this should be a no-brainer.