Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Getting Tough on Strip Mining

Last week, the EPA tightened water quality standards on streams and other bodies of water in an effort to limit the negative impacts of strip mining for coal in Appalachia.  For the first time, the EPA will limit the electrical conductivity (salinity) of these water bodies.  This action results from years of pollution caused by the coal mining industry's practice of blowing off the tops of mountains to access shallow seams of coal and allowing the scrap material to flow into valleys.  As water passes through the deposited dirt and debris, it picks up metals and minerals that it transports to streams and other water bodies.  These metals and minerals negatively impact the quality of the water. 

Mountaintop removal for strip mining is a long-standing practice that allows coal miners to inexpensively mine coal near the surface.  The coal industry howls that tens of thousands of jobs could be lost if they can't strip mine coal cheaply.  I would dispute these claims.  What will happen is that the mining costs will increase if they have to work harder to mine the product.  But environmental damage is just one of many hidden costs in "cheap coal."

The EPA will catch lots of flack for this move, but in my mind it is fulfilling its mission of protecting the environment.  Mountaintop removal is a dangerous practice that has been allowed to persist for far too long.  The current administration is doing the right thing by tacking this issue.  It is not banning coal mining, but it is requiring the coal industry to be more responsible when extracting coal. 

The U.S. is addicted to cheap coal.  Now that the real costs (environmental, health, etc.) are beginning to be calculated, hopefully we should start to see the real cost of the fuel over the next decade. 

Coal is catching it from both ends these days as citizens come to realize the damage caused by mining coal and the damage to human health and the environment caused by burning it.  As additional anti-pollution measures are undertaken at the state level to minimize the impact of sulfur and mercury emitted by coal burning power plants, I expect natural gas to gain favor among utilities faced with the cost of retrofitting older coal plants with anti-pollution measures.

After the recent terrible mining accidents in West Virginia and China, we are reminded that underground mining is a very dangerous undertaking.  But blowing off the tops of mountains and polluting otherwise clean water is not a suitable alternative.  Ironically, Massey Energy, which owns the mine that exploded yesterday killing at least 25 miners, has the most surface mining operations in Appalachia.

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