Stop the presses! Scientists report that pulverizing mountains to remove coal can damage environment!
All kidding aside, last week’s publication in the prestigious journal Science of a “blockbuster“ new study on the irreversible environmental impacts of mountaintop mining–a widespread practice in Appalachia–was a sobering and long overdue cry of alarm from an eminent group of hydrologists, ecologists and engineers, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences.
Obvious as their conclusions might seem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to permit mining companies to strip mountaintops of their forests and topsoil, blast them with explosives and then push rock and toxic materials into adjacent valleys and streams in order to expose coal deposits.
“We now know that surface mining has extraordinary consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems,” said Dr. Keith Eshleman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, one of the co-authors. “Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques.”
Lost in some of the reporting about habitat destruction was the team’s finding that such mining practices seriously harm human health due to air and water pollution.
As the study noted, “Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease.”
Another careful study published last year, and cited in the Science article, estimated that coal mining in Appalachia results in somewhere between 1,700 and 2,900 “excess deaths” each year. The authors of that study noted that coal mining contributes about $8 billion annually to the region’s economy–but exacts an economic cost to its inhabitants of over $40 billion a year.
And that’s not counting the cost to human health from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, radioactive particles and other pollutants caused by burning the coal. (In fairness, cheap coal-fired power indirectly saves some lives, as well, by making possible more economic food refrigeration and other benefits.)
The National Mining Association dismissed the new study as “an advocacy piece, rather than independent science.” The authors noted that the paper underwent rigorous peer review by other experts in the field.
Note: In 2006, California enacted a law that essentially prohibits utilities from purchasing any additional coal-fired power. Only a few percent of PG&E’s power comes from legacy coal-fired sources.