There is coal in the Appalachian Mountains of western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Depending on which statistics are being quoted, the region may be the source of nearly half the electricity needs of the United States.
We expect to pay for that electricity in our monthly utility bill, but the costs don’t end there. The method used to extract the coal is destroying one of the most diverse, and environmentally important, areas on the planet.
Using a mining method called mountain top removal, coal companies are lopping off the tops of Appalachian Mountains to get at the coal lying below the surface. It is a method akin to strip mining in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. Strip-mining results are easily visible from Interstate 81 in the area from Pottsville, past Frackville, Mahanoy City, and Jim Thorpe.
I stopped in Mahanoy City several years ago on a motorcycle ride with my son. I found a few friendly people still living there who taught me the name isn’t pronounced at all as it looks (say MAH-ny City). There was a nearly defunct coal crusher, some very big, “steam shovels” and some huge holes in the ground, surrounded by churned up dirt from the heavy equipment.
In the early days of the state’s anthracite coal mining industry, men from Wales and Ireland dug into the earth with picks and shovels. It was a labor intensive endeavor. Then, in the beginning of the 20th Century, mining companies began using huge mechanized shovels to strip the land and haul out the coal. The new method meant coal could be dug and shipped faster, with fewer workers, than the old “down in the mine” process.
It also created acid runoff from minerals millions of years buried, and suddenly exposed to surface weather and corrosion.
Mountain top removal – the industry likes to refer to it as MTR – uses bulldozers to push hundreds of feet of mountain into adjacent valleys, burying streams and, in some cases, whole towns. Millions of acres of forest are being destroyed in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky to get at the coal that fires electricity generation plants.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, at least 500 mountains have been flattened so far by mountain top removal coal mining. What is left are erased or poisoned streams, and pockets of unemployed workers where once there were thriving communities.
In response to calls from environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun more careful scrutiny of mining permits, leading to coal companies blaming the government for potential job losses.
In a CNN documentary about a fight to save historic Blair Mountain, Sharples, W.Va. resident Linda Dials told CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien, “Coal means we’re going to be able to support our family. We’re going to be able to stay where we’re at. We’re going to be able to retire some day.”
And the beat goes on.
Until it stops.
Then the company moves on. The Dials and others like them reminisce about the days when coal gave them work, and local towns and environmental groups start bragging about what they have done with grant money from the Department of Environmental Protection or Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – money used to clean up the remaining streams and plant trees where once there were great, diverse forests, and thereby subsidize profits for the companies’ shareholders.
The grant money comes from taxes. Maybe it would be better if it came from the coal companies. They would jack up their prices, which would increase our electric bills, but at least we would know a little more of the real cost of extracting coal on the cheap.
Or, when we’re done cleaning up the century-old mess from strip mining in the anthracite coal region, we can start on the Appalachians.
Photo by Clean Coal Is Dirty
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