Mountaintop Removal Mining and Environmental Assessment

Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is an environmentally destructive process that strips the tops of mountains using heavy machinery and explosives to acquire a layer of coal typically used for the burning of fossil fuels for energy. The rock and dirt debris are used to fill in adjacent valleys, burying streams and anything in them. This process is highly utilized throughout the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States. To date over 500 mountaintops have been removed which represents over a million acres in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia (AV, 2011). The ecological consequences of this type of mining are a loss of forests and biodiversity with direct and indirect impacts to fish, birds and other biota. There have also been significant human health impacts reported due to contaminated water systems, flooding, and spillage of sludge from broken impoundments (Palmer et al. 2010, AV 2011). The benefit received from MTR is very insignificant and inefficient providing less than 4.5% of the electricity requirements (AV, 2011) for a country that is already one of the top energy consumers with less than 5% of the world’s population.

Some of the current topics that are being discussed in regards to this issue, are in the ineffective mitigation measures and reclamation to MTR sites. Current mitigation measures include stream creation to replace the ones buried by rock debris in valley filling. However it is reported that no stream creation project has been successful (Palmer et al. 2010). Reclaimed sites are often converted to grasslands due to waivers that allow mining companies to leave the land for development purposes rather than restoring it to its natural state, if at all possible. These reclaimed sites have drastically reduced biological integrity and less than 3% have actually been used for development (AV 2011).

The purpose of an environmental assessment (EA) is to identify the impact of a project, determine ways to minimize and mitigate the negative aspects of those impacts on people and the environment, and to fully inform decision makers about the environmental consequences (Noble 2010, pg. 4). The evidence reported suggests that there is an inadequacy in the EA process. If the EIA concluded that these projects had detrimental health effects, as has been found, one would think that the project would not be approved. Yet, mining permits are being granted in spite of growing evidence of its environmental destruction (Palmer 2010).

If the alternatives recommended are not going to be successful or if they will result negatively to ecological and human health, the project should not go through. Furthermore the fact that post-project monitoring data is not shared to the public, completely diminishes the legitimacy of the recommendations for mitigation of the EA. The inefficiency of this all is leading to the extraction of a non-renewable resource for very little benefit with no consideration to the environment it is destroying. Investment into renewable energies with less destructive technologies are where investments need to be made, not into fossil fuels that only contribute to climate change with very little benefit. I believe these issues stem from a lack of policy measures, a lack of transparency and post-project evaluation, monitoring and information sharing.

References:

Appalachian Voices (AV), 2011. End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. Available from: [http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/mtr101/] retrieved on November 9, 2011.

Palmer M, E Bernhardt, W Schlesinger, K Eshleman, E Foufoula-Georgiou, M Hendryx, A Lemly, G Likens, O Loucks, M Power, P White, and P Wilcock. 2010. Mountaintop Mining Consequences. Science. 327: 148-149

Noble B. 2010. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A guide to principles and practice 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. New York.

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