“The negative health effects of living around mountaintop removal mining, from exposure to toxins such as selenium, mercury, arsenic, lead, copper and chromium to the increased incidence of birth defects, pulmonary disorders and hypertension in communities around mine sites, are serious and well documented,” writes Michael Diamond of Vanderbilt University. ”In addition, both workers and innocent bystanders (even those seemingly far enough away) must watch out for flyrock, which is the term used for all the dust and rock stirred up while blasting through mountains. Oftentimes this flyrock can crack and damage homes and property, and occasionally the impact of such debris can be fatal.”
The EPA, which has only recently begun to crack down on this practice, notes that mountaintop removal mining causes an increase of minerals in local water — zinc, sodium, selenium, and sulfate levels may increase and negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrates leading to less diverse and more pollutant-tolerant species. Even though these findings constitute clear violations of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has continued to issue permits for new, bigger mining operations. And fish aren’t the only wildlife to be killed by this ugly practice. Recently Care2′s Judy Molland reported that bears and cubs are being buried alive inside their dens by valley fill.
Why is mountaintop removal still happening? The answer is simple: money. Yes, coal companies and their pocket politicians will tell you that they just can’t bear to eliminate jobs by banning this practice, but that’s just an argument to distract voters from the truth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the early 1950s there were between 125,000 and 145,000 miners employed in West Virginia; in 2004 there were just over 16,000. During that time, coal production increased right alongside unemployment rates. Mountaintop removal is a mining technique designed, from the very start, to take the human labor force out of the mining process. Human beings are expensive, and require time off and benefits. The giant machines involved in mountaintop removal are cheap by comparison, they’ll work 24 hours a day without complaint, and you don’t have to worry about them getting hurt.
Yes, Appalachian families have made their living mining coal for many decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s all they’re capable of. Besides, the coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them. These strong, skilled workers might be poor, but they’re not stupid. In fact many Appalachian residents have become environmental activists in response to the devastating toll they’ve seen mountaintop removal mining take on their health and ancestral lands.
The only ones who benefit from mountaintop removal mining are the out-of-state coal companies that practice it and reap the handsome profits. Even those of use who live far away from Appalachia share in the consequences. The coal produced by mountaintop removal mining is shipped to coal-fired power plants all over the country. Many fail to realize that the electricity they use everyday helps to continue this destructive process. But America is slowly waking up to the realities of mountaintop removal, and several states have moved to ban the use of this coal.
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