Appalachia Today: Part 9 – The Impact of Mining on the Environment of Appalachia

Coal mining has had and continues to have today a massive and lasting adverse impact on the land, water and resources of Appalachia.

At least 10,000 miles of streams have been polluted  by acid runoff, another 10,000 miles of streams adversely impacted by sediment, thousands of miles of landslides – many on steep Appalachian slopes, there are some 25,000 miles of unreclaimed highwalls, hundreds of mountains and ridges decapitated in the name of mountain top removal, uncontrolled and devastating floods, damaged roads, coal waste fires lasting for decades, deadly waste dam collapses such as Buffalo Creek, and large-scale deforestation of much of the Appalachian region, once home to one of the world’s most diverse and unique hardwood forests.

Contour Strip Mining

Until the rise of mountaintop removal in the 1990s, eastern surface mines were relatively small and used a method of extraction mining called contour mining in which the coal operator made a cut into the side of the mountain at the level of the coal seam and then followed the seam along the contour of the mountain for as long as the seam continued, or until the operator reached the end of the coal he owned or controlled.

Though the contour strip mines in Appalachia were small in size, by the 1960s and 1970s there were thousands of them and they mined for many thousands of miles along the steep slopes of countless Appalachian mountains, drastically impacting the land and people of Appalachia. Contour mining created over 3,000 miles of landslides and 25,000 miles of unreclaimed highwalls. The impacts of the contour mines were particularly severe because the mines were largely located in steep-slope mountainous areas which experienced heavy rainfall. Contour mining caused almost unimaginable damage to Appalachia in the 1960s and 70s and in regions such as northern West Virginia and southeast Ohio, produced chronic acid mine drainage.

Mountaintop Removal

Photo: Mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky

The greatest ongoing impact today on the Appalachian environment is mountain top removal. MTR is a method of surface mining in which a coal operator, after removing trees and other surface vegetation, blasts off the top of a mountain to reach the multiple seams of coal that lie at various elevations in the mountain. MTR can take off as much as a thousand feet of a mountain to reach as many as ten separate seams of coal. To blast off the top of entire mountains requires the massive use of explosives – in central Appalachia, MTR mines use five million pounds of explosives daily to blast off the tops of mountains. The rock and debris dislodged by the blasting is then pushed into adjacent hollows or valleys, filling the valley or hollow and burying the streams at the bottom of the hollow. These “fills” are among the largest earthen structures in the eastern United States and can be hundreds of feet high and over a mile in length.

Almost 500 mountains in central Appalachia have been destroyed in this manner and 1,200 miles of streams have been buried by the resulting valley fills.[i] In addition to burying streams, MTR often severely affects water quality. In Kentucky alone, over 2,500 miles of streams have been polluted by MTR mining.[ii] These streams (and groundwater) have been contaminated with carcinogens and heavy metals which have adversely affected many local water supplies.

MTR also causes widespread deforestation and landscape changes. One study estimated that between 6 and 6.9 million tons of CO2 are emitted due to the removal of forest plants and decomposition of forest litter, thereby contributing to climate change.[iii] Then there is the loss and degradation of habitats from MTR in one of the nation’s most biologically diverse areas – the biological diversity in Appalachia is greater than any other area other than the tropics.[iv]

MTR mining also affects public health in a number of ways, particularly in increasing mortality and morbidity due to increased levels of air particulates associated with MTR mining.[v] In addition, according to a Harvard Medical School study, among other health impacts, poor birth outcomes are elevated in MTR mining areas.[vi]

Coal Waste Dams

Aside from strip mining and its impacts, the second greatest environmental damage created by mining has been the creation of huge, toxic coal waste impoundments which dot the Appalachian landscape.

Photo: Impoundment of a coal slurry spill with a barrier across a river

Coal waste impoundments are toxic reservoirs built to house the waste created by the coal preparation process. The impoundments present many environmental and safety problems but the overriding risk that the impoundments present is the potential structural failure of the dam impounding the toxic waste which itself is largely made of coal waste.

There are over 600 coal waste impoundments in the U.S., primarily in central Appalachia, containing many thousands of acres of toxic waste.[vii] These impoundments hold back liquid and semi-liquid coal waste that contains carcinogenic chemicals and toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, copper, and chromium.[viii]

One coal company alone, Massey Energy, created 28 coal waste impoundments to dispose of its toxic waste, impoundments which have been responsible for 24 spills in the past ten years.[ix] The spills have released over 300 million gallons of liquid or semi-liquid waste, with 270 million gallons from the spills entering streams and local water supplies.[x]

The seminal example of Massey’s coal waste impoundment problems was the failure of a large coal waste impoundment in Martin County, KY in 2000.  A Massey coal waste impoundment in Martin County broke through an abandoned mine shaft which lay beneath the waste impoundment, releasing the toxic sludge into nearby waterways, ultimately reaching the Ohio River more than 75 miles away. More slurry was released into the environment in the Martin County spill than oil in the Exxon Valdez disaster. EPA called the Martin County spill the worst environmental disaster ever to occur in the southeastern United States.

The Martin County slurry spill killed all forms of aquatic life in the streams it reached, including 1.6 million fish. It washed away roads and bridges and contaminated the water supply of 27,000 people. Massey ultimately paid approximately $46.5 million to clean up the environmental damage caused by the spill.[xi]

Effects on Water – Acid Mine Drainage and Sedimentation of Streams

Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a major environmental problem created by coal mining in Appalachia. Acid occurs when coal and other rocks that are exposed during underground mining leach minerals and heavy metals into surface or groundwater. The water, which turns orange from the minerals and metals, can contaminate soil and kill fish, plants and other animals. Humans can also be directly affected, since AMD makes water unsuitable for consumption. Unless the coal company reclaims the land it mined, AMD can continue for decades after a mine’s closure.[xii]

Photo: Iron hydroxide precipitate in a stream receiving acid drainage from surface coal mining.

Coal mining also affects the water supplies in the region. In order to mine the coal, companies have to pump out large quantities of groundwater from a mine. This action can lower groundwater levels around the mine, which can cause nearby farmlands and ecosystems to become drier.[xiii] [1]

Effects on Wildlife

Coal mining has negatively impacted wildlife in Appalachia in a number of ways. First, the destruction of forests and mountaintops that results from the process of coal extraction destroys large ears of wildlife habitat, forcing animals to move. Second, the air and water pollution created by mining often leads to disease and death among animals and fish. Coal plant emissions cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases in animals, while coal ash spills and acid mine drainage harm fish and other aquatic life. Coal dust can reduce the oxygen available for wildlife by inhibiting photosynthesis and settling in waterways. In addition, coal-fired power plants are the main source of mercury contamination in the U.S. Fish, birds, mammals and other species are susceptible to mercury poisoning, which can cause reproductive and neurological problems. Finally, coal-fired power plants are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and the alteration of ecosystems and wildlife habitats.[xiv]

[1] Subsidence is another severe problem that can affect both the land and water in a coal mining area. It occurs when the supports in an underground mine collapse and the mine caves in, which can shift the land and structures above it. These depressions can cause sinkholes or troughs that can severely damage buildings, leading to issues such as cracked walls or foundations. Surrounding water sources may also be significantly impacted, since ground and surface water can pool in the depression, potentially causing floods and destroying farmland.[1] [1]

[i] “Civil Disobedience Campaign Launched at Massey Energy Mountaintop-removal Site.” Coal Is Dirty. February 3, 2009. Accessed October 7, 2015.

[ii] Epstein et al., “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219 (2011), p. 77.

[iii] Epstein et al., “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219 (2011), p. 78.

[iv] Epstein et al., “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219 (2011), p. 83.

[v] Epstein et al., “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219 (2011), p. 79.

[vi] Epstein et al., “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219 (2011), p. 82.

[vii] McCoy, Erin L. “The U.S. Has Nearly 600 Coal Waste Sites. Why They’ve Got West Virginians Worried.” YES! Magazine. March 23, 2015. Accessed September 25, 2015.

[viii] Id

[ix] “The Last Mountain.” The Last Mountain Movie ISSUES Comments. Accessed October 7, 2015.

[x] Martin County Sludge Spill.” SourceWatch. May 23, 2012. Accessed September 18, 2015.

[xi] “More UBB Prosecutions Sought,” Charleston Gazette, Dec. 17, 2011.

[xii] “About coal mining impacts,” Greenpeace, July 1, 2016.

[xiii] “About coal mining impacts,” Greenpeace, July 1, 2016.

[xiv] “7 Ways Coal is Impacting Wildlife,” Arcadia Power.