David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
On the heels of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement that it would allow a proposed coal mine involving mountaintop removal to go forward, 12 environmental scientists have published a review of the practice that condemns it in no uncertain terms. "Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses," the scientists wrote in the January 8 issue of Science. "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science."
The group of ecologists, hydrologists and engineers call for a moratorium on the practice as a result of their comprehensive review of the data on its impacts until "new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems."
The litany of problems—both to the environment and human health—caused by a practice that involves blasting the top off a mountain to get at the coal beneath it more easily include: heavy metals, sulfuric acid and other mine contaminants in waterways and drinking-water wells; deformed fish carrying toxic levels of selenium found in 73 of 78 streams affected by mountaintop mining; entire streams filled in by blasted mountain rock; and forests cleared to get at the mountaintop beneath them. Add to that the fact that this form of mining has increased exponentially in the past 30 years, supplying roughly 10 percent of U.S. coal, and you have a recipe for much of the environmental devastation visible across northern Appalachia.
The tree planting and other attempted fixes after mining is complete (mitigation efforts initiated by the coal industry) aren’t doing the job either: one study found that even 15 years after a mountaintop was leveled, trees had not regrown in the area, possibly because of the poor soils left afterwards. And even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has testified that they "do not know of a successful stream creation project in conjunction with [mountaintop removal mining]."
Not only that, mountaintop removal actually costs jobs; since 1979 the number of miners in West Virginia has declined from more than 60,000 to just 22,000, according to the state’s Sen. Robert Byrd. "In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment," he wrote in an opinion piece this past December. "The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals."
In fact, "most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens," Byrd continues. "The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions."
And let’s not forget that mining remains the second most dangerous occupation in the U.S., averaging 27 deaths for every 100,000 workers per year. A review of mortality figures published in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association last August found that switching to renewable energy sources could avert more than 1,300 worker deaths over the next decade. That’s not counting the lives saved by reduced emissions of acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides, neurotoxic mercury and climate changing greenhouse gases from the power plants that burn coal.
As Larry Gibson of Dorothy, W. Va., whose family has lived in the area for 230 years and whose home on a hill is surrounded by a moonscape of leveled mountains, told a reporter in 2008: "There is no such thing as clean coal… I want you folks to write what you see and if you write truthfully, you will end one of the most barbaric practices on the planet."