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article imageOp-Ed: Feds guilty of condoning unsafe mountaintop mining practices

By Karen Graham     Sep 3, 2014 in Health
Mountaintop removal mining (MRM) is an economically advantageous way for companies to extract coal from the Earth, removing over two-and-a-half-times the amount of coal per worker hour than can be done with underground mining. But there is a downside.
Even though the Appalachian Mountain range extends up into Canada, In referring to the Appalachian coal region,we're talking about parts of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and parts of western Pennsylvania.
Two-thirds of coal is from underground mines in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Mountaintop removal mining (MRM) became popular in these states in the 1970s due to being less costly and the apparent lack of oversight by government officials.
Below the densely forested slopes of southern West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains is a layer cak...
Below the densely forested slopes of southern West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains is a layer cake of thin coal seams. To uncover this coal profitably, mining companies engineer large—sometimes very large—surface mines using strip mining methods. This image of a surface mine in Boone County, West Virginia from 2009.
NASA LandSat/2009
MRM is actually a dirty process. A form of surface, or strip mining, it involves removing the top of a mountain to reach the coal seam. Companies found that by using explosives, over 400 vertical feet of mountain top could be blown up and then carted away, leaving the coal seam. The debris, full of rocks and soil filled with toxic mining byproducts has been dumped into valleys and other low-lying areas, quite often contaminating creeks and streams.
Legislation surrounding Mountaintop Removal Mining
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 made it legal for companies to engage in MRM, but only if the mining sites were reclaimed back to the former contours and use they were found in originally. Sounds good, right? A little problem arose when regulatory agencies, often at the state level, were allowed to grant waivers, in which case the sites only needed to have "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no high walls remaining."
Surprisingly, a permit could be had for filling in streams and creeks, although doing so would constitute a violation of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972. Even still. the Army Corps of Engineers was cited for violating the act on four separate occasions by issuing these permits. Such is the case with Massey Energy Company. Before being sold to Alpha Natural Resources in June of 2011, it was the fourth largest coal producer in the U.S.
The Martin County Coal Slurry Spill.
Photo taken: 10/22/2000
The Martin County Coal Slurry Spill. Photo taken: 10/22/2000
Dave Cooper
After fighting in federal courts for several years, in 2008, Massey finally agreed to pay $20 million in a settlement with the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act. It was alleged they had "routinely polluted" the rivers and streams of West Virginia and Kentucky with coal slurry and toxic waste water. The estimated fines for the individual violations ran to more than $2.4 billion.
Impact of MRM on health and the environment
The number of scientific studies done on the adverse health effects of MRM is too numerous to count. But the evidence and accompanying scientific data clearly illustrate the harmful effects to human health from exposure to the coal dust and toxic mining byproducts found in the air and water from surface mining.
Map showing study areas used by Dr. Michael Hendryx. Over 1184 individuals were involved in the rese...
Map showing study areas used by Dr. Michael Hendryx. Over 1184 individuals were involved in the research.
Michael Hendrix
In March 2011, Dr. Michael Hendryx and his team published their findings on the “Health-Related Quality of Life Among Central Appalachian Residents in Mountaintop Mining Counties," in the American Journal of Public Health. In the map above, the black areas show where MRM is done, and these areas provided some interesting insights to the level of impact to people's health as a result of MRM.
The study found the following:
1. People living close to MRM had cancer rates of 14.4% compared to 9.4% people living in
other areas of Appalachia.
2. Birth defects among children born in MRM areas was 42 percent higher.
3. Public health costs for pollution-related illnesses in Appalachia are over $75 billion a year.
Trying to estimate the monetary value of the damage to our environment as a result of mountaintop removal mining would be a daunting task. Just imagine, if Massey Energy Company incurred fines totalling over $2.4 billion, what would the cost be now. Polluted rivers and streams, damage to the flora and fauna and air pollution can be added to the list of human health affects, and the total would be staggering.
Bo Webb of Naoma, West Virginia was married for 40 years. He and his wife raised their family under an MRM operation. According to Ecowatch, he wrote an op/ed in the Charleston Gazette last week, saying in part, “This is personal to me. In 2012, my wife Joanne was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away three months later. It was devastating. We had been married for nearly 40 years. All around us, people are getting sick. They’re dying. And the scientific evidence tells us mountaintop removal mining is the cause of much of this suffering.”
The rest of his op/ed was an open letter to the Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Burwell. In his letter, Webb pleads with the secretary to please, " Come to Twilight and Lindytown and see what mountaintop removal is doing to us. On the average there are 5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel mix detonated per day in the mountains directly above our homes in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. This has been going on for nearly the last 20 years. The fallout of fine particulates of silica, aluminum and other toxins are killing us."
It is unthinkable to me that our federal government has allowed this form of coal mining to go on, and even worse, to allow big coal companies to blatantly ignore EPA regulations regarding the safety of human health and the environment. For this reason, the federal government is just as guilty as the money-hungry energy companies. The question now is this: Will anyone listen, and will they do something?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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