Environmental Reads

Killer King Coal

For this assignment, we had to discuss coal, oil, and/or toxics and their impact on humans. We’ve read a lot about all of these environmental contaminants in the last few weeks between our assigned textbook and Robert Bilott’s Exposure.

The topic I’ve chosen to talk about further is coal. After watching the movie Burning the Future: Coal in America, I have a better understanding of the impact of the coal industry on Appalachian America. The documentary follows a group of community activists on their journey to fight against the nearby mountaintop removal coal project that is rapidly changing the landscape of their home.

We learned about mountaintop removal of coal, which is a process that is exactly how it sounds: mountaintops are excavated down to the coal seam, and then the entire coal seam is removed. The mountaintops are then ‘restored’ by the excavators. But there are several problems that arise through this process.

First, the obvious: the loss of biodiversity is profound in mountaintop removal. There are species that have fundamental niches only at the higher elevations of mountaintops, and this process obliterates those habitats. What’s more, the restored lands aren’t the thriving first growth forests that they were before the excavation, but instead a monoculture field of grass that harbors significantly less biodiversity. Also, the rapid landscape change results in differences down the elevations, as a lack of trees increases runoff and the increased runoff brings flooding to towns further down the mountain.

There is also the issue of introduced pollutants from the washing of the coal and the explosions to remove the bedrock. These pollutants enter the water table through runoff, and there poison the neighboring towns.

This is where the community in West Virginia began to realize issues with the coal mining project. Their homes and health were becoming increasingly at risk as the removal continued. Every time they questioned the coal company or the politicians, they dismissed their concerns. Eventually, after their questions and concerned continued to go unanswered, the committee took their concerns to the UN, where, again, they were met with resistance.

In fact, the coal company and the politicians were avidly avoiding the issues arising in the West Virginia communities. They were working together to ensure the continuation of the project, advertising mountaintop removal as a more economic and safer option of coal removal. And sure, it’s safer with no cave ins and more economic as it ensures complete removal of the coal seam, but the long term ecological costs are far worse than companies are willing to admit.

Check out this video summarizing mountaintop removal:

You can see that the landscape of America is being irrevocably changed. And with the costs of coal being increased greenhouse gas emissions through combustion that contribute to global warming, you can also see why this practice needs to be questioned.

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