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Mountaintop removal mining: EPA says yes, scientists say no

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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."

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  1. 1. joeldooris 2:05 pm 01/8/2010

    We need cheep electricity so that we can leave our computers on all the day with no one using them. Who cares if it’s wasteful and destructive to many environments just as long as it’s convenient. Screw the earth, screw future generations, I’m pulling for waste to win!

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  2. 2. MARC 3:08 pm 01/8/2010


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  3. 3. Shoshin 3:15 pm 01/8/2010

    OK, so we a bunch of self-styled "environmental scientists" saying no. Can somebody explain to me how an obviously politically motivated person can claim to be a "scientist?"

    Wrapping their politics in the robe of science is disgusting. Be either a politician or a scientist; you can’t be both.

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  4. 4. RDH 3:19 pm 01/8/2010

    I thought we wanted greater productivity. And this form of mining is much safer for the workers. Note the article did not allude to that. In fact the comments show that the real purpose is to quit using coal altogether and not how it is obtained.

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  5. 5. cshine 4:04 pm 01/8/2010

    Shonshin, did you actually go to the report’s website and see the credentials of the authors?

    University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Cambridge, MD 21613, USA.
    2 University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA.
    3 Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
    4 Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY 12545, USA.
    5 University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55414, USA.
    6 West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506, USA.
    7 Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC 27109, USA.
    8 Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056, USA.
    9 University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
    10 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.
    11 Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.

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  6. 6. candide 4:09 pm 01/8/2010

    The average computer uses about 60 watts of electricity.
    Try turning the TV off – you’d get more bang for the buck.

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  7. 7. Soccerdad 5:14 pm 01/8/2010


    These aren’t exactly credentials, just university addresses. You know, the places in this country where leftists hang out.

    And if the EPA under this administration has OK’d the practice, it must be really benign.

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  8. 8. Ungolythe 6:07 pm 01/8/2010

    Here is the list of names that goes with cshine’s post:

    M. A. Palmer,1,2,* E. S. Bernhardt,3 W. H. Schlesinger,4 K. N. Eshleman,1 E. Foufoula-Georgiou,5 M. S. Hendryx,6 A. D. Lemly,7 G. E. Likens,4 O. L. Loucks,8 M. E. Power,9 P. S. White,10 P. R. Wilcock11

    I find it amusing that some people still think that anytime a scientific study gives quantifiable reasons for why we should not plunder the resources of our planet with little care for the environment or future generations are branded as "leftists".

    I feel that future generations will be feeling the impact of our most dangerous sin today, "gluttony", for a long time to come. It’s time we quit burying our heads in the sand and realize that, yes, we may have to make sacrifices for our children and theirs on so on in order to bring about greater sustainability but I fail to see why this should be considered a "leftist" idea.

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  9. 9. Bops 11:44 pm 01/8/2010

    The EPA doesn’t seem to be protecting anything lately. Who is responsible?

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  10. 10. JamesDavis 8:21 am 01/9/2010

    Shoshine and Soccerdad: Did you hear the comic Ron White, with the Blue Comedy Tour say, "You can’t fix Stupid"? He was talking about you and the elected officials of West Virginia. You are proving yourselves to be frightfully STUPID.

    I live in West Virginia where these STUPID idiots are destroying the state for big profit. Because of the poisions that come from coal and natural gas extraction in West Virginia; West Virginia leads the nation in Chronic Childhood Diseases and numberous other deadly diseases. They are killing the children like you would kill a pesky housefly and these STUPID bastards, in our government, could care less as long as their killers stuff their greedy pockets with money. You people, the EPA, and the Army Corps are pathetic and should be exterminated the same way your are exterminating the children of West Virginia.

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  11. 11. Soccerdad 10:21 am 01/9/2010

    Yest James, we are quite familiar with your beef against the coal industry.

    I think it is kind of amusing that the same bunch that was singing the praises of EPA and this administration when they announced the CO2 endangerment finding are suddenly not so thrilled anymore.

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  12. 12. pgtruspace 1:42 am 01/10/2010

    Since when does the EPA make it’s determinations based on science?

    It is a political tool, always has been. Those that are most powerful in Washington DC politics generally get their way.

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  13. 13. Shoshin 11:33 am 01/10/2010


    I see that you are still using electricity generated by coal.


    You probably had your heat turned on in the cold snap too didn’t you?


    Or did you let your children freeze to be politically correct?

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  14. 14. JamesDavis 8:04 am 01/11/2010

    Shoshin: You are either Senator Capito or one of her children. She, Senator Capito, believes coal is clean and carbon neutral and it does not destroys the land when extracted by mountain top removal. You are so ready to label people as "Hypocrite" because they try to improve their life and surroundings or because they care about the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the land they live on, and they care about what they hand down to their children. Because you are pro death, destruction, war, and poverty…what label do they pin on you? Let me guess…"Republican".

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  15. 15. galaxy_man 10:07 am 01/11/2010

    Best to avoid feeding the trolls, James. It just makes them more aggressive.

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  16. 16. Soccerdad 10:16 am 01/11/2010


    You are in support of someone who says the following??

    "You people, the EPA, and the Army Corps are pathetic and should be exterminated the same way your are exterminating the children of West Virginia"

    Personally, I think James needs to go back on his medication.

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  17. 17. Shoshin 11:26 am 01/11/2010


    I see, just because I don’t agree with your politics, I’m a "Republican". I’m sure that my politics are likely to the left of yours, but I don’t buy the hypocrisy that goes on in the eviro-nut movement.

    As a humanist, nor do I buy the issue that 60 guppies are worth more than the livliehoods of thousands of people in California.

    As someone who believes in the constitution and democracy, I see the creeping totalitarianism and absolutism that has infected this environmental religion is of a greater threat to our way of life than Al-Qeda. And that is because the rot is from within, not without.

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  18. 18. Philtron 1:22 pm 01/11/2010

    This is Avatar, except instead of killing a living planet (all life is connected on Pandora) they’re just massively polluting an area negatively affecting all forms of life in the vacinity including humans… And unlike Avatar, we only have one planet with life so we can’t afford to kill it.

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  19. 19. JamesDavis 2:24 pm 01/11/2010

    Yes, Galaxy_man, I see what you mean. They are as heartless and cold as the retarded president we just got rid of.

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  20. 20. SandFrog 3:30 pm 01/11/2010

    Way back when shrub the elder was running for president,
    I had a friend who was a lobbyist for the pesticide industry.
    He did a lot of work for the Bush campaign. When Bush won
    my friend was rewarded with an appointed position at the EPA. I have never trusted anything that came out of the EPA since.

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  21. 21. Shoshin 5:45 pm 01/11/2010

    "You people, the EPA, and the Army Corps are pathetic and should be exterminated the same way your are exterminating the children of West Virginia." – JamesDavis

    "Yes, Galaxy_man, I see what you mean. They are as heartless and cold as the retarded president we just got rid of." – JamesDavis

    JamesDavis; Just another hypocrite and proven so by his own words.

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  22. 22. verdai 6:00 pm 01/11/2010

    How long has the EPA been around? It may as well drop dead.
    It seems that they will Never learn. How long has "development" been around?
    – Just waiting for all resources to run out-
    including water and wood.

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  23. 23. weingibz 4:24 pm 01/12/2010

    What are you worried about? When the Chinese take over. They’ll strip mine without regard for our workers or our environment. They’ll thank the environmentalists for keeping the coal in reserve for them.

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  24. 24. hotblack 10:19 am 01/15/2010

    So there is either an infinite amount of mountaintops, or an endless supply of new mountaintops popping up every few years, or, you’re literally ruining the country for a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

    …friggin europeans should have never come here.

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  25. 25. fishypants 3:17 pm 03/17/2010

    hey u pieces of shits! this is our earth, u need to give a damn. we need cheap electricity yeah but ur a homo that likes to waste the shit, get a life fucktard

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  26. 26. fishypants 3:18 pm 03/17/2010

    hey u pieces of shit, this is our earth, u need to stop wasting our electricity, get a life homo and stop leaving ur pc on while ur not on it. ur a dumbass who likes to beat off alone. ur stupid

    Link to this
  27. 27. chidigreat 6:32 am 04/12/2013

    this would be helpful to unec at the university of nigeria

    Link to this

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