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How Many Years Can a Mountain Exist Before it is Washed to Sea?
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by D. Tewell | 2011

By D. Tewell—Coal’s dirty life begins with mining. Well before long trains of coal cars chug their way to power-generation stations, the coal they’re hauling has already begun to make its mark as the nation’s number one polluter.

How Many Years Can a Mountain Exist Before It Is Washed to the Sea?

By D. Tewell—Coal’s dirty life begins with mining. Well before long trains of coal cars chug their way to power-generation stations, the coal they’re hauling has already begun to make its mark as the nation’s number one polluter.

When coal mining makes the news, it is usually because of a life-threatening disaster in a deep mine, such as the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners in Massey’s mine in Montcoal, WV. But surface mining, though generally ignored, produces most of America’s coal1, and imperils life every day. The most rapacious type of surface mining, mountain top removal, is destroying southern Appalachia, our own backyard.

Picture a mountain, or a mountain range, as a layer cake. The icing is what we see: forests, laced with streams and springs. In the Appalachians, the forests are more than just icing on the cake. They are among the most ecologically valuable forests in the world, with more species diversity than almost  any place outside the tropics.2  Beneath the forest lie the mountain’s layers: topsoil, subsoil, rock, coal, rock, coal . . .


Mining, Minus Miners

Mountaintop removal is mining on the cheap, using few workers, enormous machinery, and explosives to blast away the mountaintops to expose the coal layers. The process begins with clear-cutting the forest and stripping away the topsoil. As the forest is converted from healthy ecosystem to debris, it is sold off as timber, burned, or pushed into the valleys below. The environmental damage even at this early stage of mining is incalculable as forests are converted to smoke, valley fill, trash, and logs hauled out by diesel trucks.  

With the forest gone, attention turns to the rocky layer and blasting begins. Using millions of pounds of explosives, the mining company shatters the rock layer. Flyrock and dust shoot skyward, landing wherever gravity or the wind takes them. Monster machines called draglines, with footprints as big as a gymnasium and weighing  millions of pounds, push the rubble down the slope. Blasting and pushing continue until a coal layer is exposed. The coal is scraped, scooped, and transported via truck or conveyor belt to a coal preparation plant for washing. When a coal layer is exhausted, the blasting is resumed to get to the next coal seam.


“Cleaning” Coal

Before the coal is loaded into rail cars bound for utilities or other industries, it is washed to remove impurities that impede burning. The slurry left behind is a toxic stew of industrial chemicals, water, coal dust, clay, and, of course, all of the heavy metals found in coal: beryllium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, nickel, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, antimony, mercury, lead, thorium, and uranium.3 When coal has been mined from underground, the slurry is often injected back into the exhausted mine. But when there is no honeycombed mountain in which to store the sludge, the mining companies simply impound it in unlined basins constructed with solid mining waste. Whether the slurry is injected or impounded, its contaminants leach into ground and surface water. Water supplies to communities become unusable; streams cannot support aquatic life.

The impoundments have proven to be fragile containers for the slurry, and thus present a threat beyond that of water contamination through leakage. Breaches and breaks in the impoundments have allowed hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic waste to flow downstream.4 Some individual spills dwarf that of the Exxon Valdez’s 53.1 million gallons.


Peaks to Plateaus

Mining companies are legally required to restore  a mining site to its original contours5, but their reclamation makes a mockery of the law. In place of the ancient, gentle ridges blanketed with lush forests, they leave a lumpy landscape of compacted and terraced waste, treated with chemicals and seeded with a non-native grass that struggles to cover the highly acidic and infertile ground.

Mining interests often claim that mining regions’ economies lag because they lack flat land for development, and they tout the arid plateaus of decapitated mountains as potential sites of economic growth.6 But the flattened mountains in beleaguered communities do not attract investment.7 


Death Valleys

Though the most visible sign of destruction in the Appalachians is the moonscape left behind when the forested mountaintops are gone, it is in the valleys that the effects of the loss of the mountains are most keenly felt. The EPA estimates that over 2,000 miles of streams have been buried by mountaintop removal waste, disastrously altering the hydrology. Rainwater collected by a natural stream is filtered through forests and their tiny rivulets. But rain collected in valley fill percolates through the waste, absorbing contaminants released by blasting. Alteration of the terrain and removal of the forests also increases the likelihood of floods8, and pollutes wells and groundwater.

Communities in the Appalachian hollows, deeply rooted by generations of coal mining, are suffering.  Scientists examining the health of those in the Appalachian communities find abnormally high rates of cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, and birth defects.9 Homes rocked by blasting and showered with debris sustain extensive damage. Roads and gardens wash away in mudslides and floods.10 To no   surprise, the two Congressional districts in which mountaintop removal mining is most pervasive have been ranked at the bottom of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index; West Virginia’s 3rd District is at 432 out of 435, while Kentucky’s 5th stands sadly at 435. Coal companies and the politicians they shower with cash proclaim Kentucky and West Virginia as “friends of coal,” but the friendship is hardly reciprocal. In a ranking of the states’ well-being, Kentucky is 49th, West Virginia, 50th. 11

With imaginations in overdrive, we might envision something as oxymoronic as “clean coal” in our power plants. But imagination cannot absolve coal of its original sin: destruction wreaked by blowing up the mountains and burying the valleys in toxic waste. To save the mountain communities, the valleys, the streams and the Appalachians themselves, we have to move beyond coal.    n


D. Tewell is the managing editor of Chesapeake.























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