I had not heard of mountaintop coal mining until now, but it seems that the Bush Administration will issue a new rule to approve mountaintop coal removal, which involves blasting away the tops of mountains to get at the coal underneath and dumping the attendant rubble and so forth into valleys and streams. The technique has been used for over 20 years in the Appalachian coal region and is regarded as cheaper, more efficient and safer than digging out coal from underground. In support of mountaintop mining is quoted the statistics that nine miners and rescuers were killed at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah and 12 more fatalities occurred among miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia last year. Indeed, half the coal produced in West Virginia is produced by mountaintop mining.
The new regulation would clarify the somewhat nebulous existing laws on the matter and allow the continuation and expansion of the practice. However, unless mine owners are allowed to dump rubble and other waste in streams and valleys, according to Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, it will not be possible to operate in mountain regions such as West Virginia where some of the richest deposits of low-sulphur coal are in reserve. This does seem to pose an environmental conundrum though, since if more coal is to be burned in the interests of rising demand for energy at the same time as breaking the dependence of the US on imported oil, this would seem to be one way of reducing the consequent SO2 emissions and hence acid rain. However, the environmental landscape will be scarred and hundreds of miles of streams destroyed in central Appalachia.
I am reminded for a moment of the film "Way out West" with Laurel and Hardy making a calamitous journey to prospect for their fortune, and in it they sing a song called "The Lonesome Pine", which goes something like: "In the Blue-Ridge mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine..." As I recall these mountains appear blue as viewed through the atmospheric aerosol caused by the oxidation of pinene and other hydrocarbons emitted from the pine-trees that are present in abundance in this spectacularly beautiful natural wilderness.
The actual procedure of mountaintop mining is no mean business. The ridge-tops are blasted off with dynamite and flattened using bulldozers. The immediate environmental impact is the clearance of all vegetation and sometimes with local residents being forced to move as well. The coal seams are then scraped with huge machines known as draglines. However, the law does require that the mining companies reclaim and replant the land, but there is always an excess of solid waste which must be disposed of somewhere. According to the environmental statement that comes with the new rule, 724 river miles were buried under mining waste during the period 1985 - 2001, and it is predicted that another 724 miles will be obliterated by 2018 if current practices continue - and why should they not, since the demand for energy from coal is unlikely to fall, especially if other fossil fuels, mainly oil begin to decline in supply, for either geological or political reasons?
I guess my thinking is that we can't have it both ways. If we are going to continue using carbon-based fuels, then as one kind (oil and then gas) begins to run low we will need to get hold of more of another kind to fill the gap. Since there is still a lot of coal left in the world, about one third of which lies under American terra firma (including its mountains), efforts to extract yet more of it must be expected, albeit with damage to the environment, both at the mining stage and again when it is burned. The alternative is that we live quite differently and use far less energy to do so, but I doubt that will be a vote-winner either.
"Rule to Expand Mountaintop Coal Mining", by John M. Broder, The New York Times, August 23, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/23/us/23coal.html