There’s no denying the importance of coal in America. The combustible black rock provides about 40% of the United States’ electricity and plays a vital role in the economy of places like West Virginia.
But there’s also no getting around major health and environmental concerns.
One increasingly popular mining method, mountaintop removal mining, could be the most destructive yet. While traditional coal mining extracts coal from underground, the mountaintop removal method blasts away chunks of mountains to get at the coal beneath. It also controversially requires fewer workers than other methods of mining coal.
On a recent trip to West Virginia to cover a chemical spill that shut down water for 300,000 people for a week, we rented a plane to take it all in.
Flying above ancient Appalachian mountains that looked from high like snow-dusted moguls, it was jarring to see large sections that had been leveled off flat. Mining operations have radically disrupted massive areas, in an incredibly diverse ecosystem, and there is significant doubt about whether they will truly recover. For all we saw, it was only a small part of 800 miles of mountaintop removal mining in the region.
West Virginia was in the news recently when this Charleston chemical storage facility accidentally released up to 10,000 gallons of the coal cleaning chemical MCHM, into the Elk River on January 9, 2014.
Uncertainty has become a way of life here as traditional underground mining methods like the one pictured here have been on the decline since the 1970s.
It was in the 70's when well-intended strip mine legislation opened the possibility for this alternative to underground coal mining. It's called mountaintop removal (MTR) and became a popular West Virginia coal mining technique because it's far cheaper than underground mining and requires much less manpower to perform.
The technology to bring down mountains around coal seams did not exist when many West Virginians sold their mineral rights decades ago. That means lifelong residents, like Larry Gibson (now deceased), have seen family lands blasted within 1,000 feet of their front door.
The 1,000-foot distance from the mountaintop removal to residents' doorsteps isn't terribly far when it's estimated that the explosive equivalent of an Hiroshima bomb is detonated every week in Appalachia.
There's nearly nothing left to remember here in Lindytown, W. Va. One former resident, Andy Green, told us the coal representative responded to his refusal to sell his home by saying, 'OK, enjoy your life in hell.'
If genetic mutations in fish such as jaw deformities and S-shaped spines, typical of selenium toxicity, are any indication, then the coal representative may not have been far off.
Selenium, and those mutations, were found downstream from the Millers' homestead after a coal company bought up the surrounding land and began blasting for coal.
Though the Millers managed to retain their family land, it sits within sight of this sediment pond filled with mining runoff, and the family now only meets here for gatherings and events.
That sediment pond (bottom) is the final stop for chemical-filled water used in mountaintop removal mining. The cleared land has all been mined and shaped to induce drainage.
Peer-reviewed studies have found the West Virginians living near these sites are 50% more likely to die from cancer.
The pollution in the Appalachian region alone is estimated to cost $US75 billion a year in public health expenses.
These mountains are among the oldest in the world. They're home to 255 species of birds, 78 types of mammals, 58 different reptiles, and 76 various amphibians. Geologists estimate that it takes 1,000 years to produce one inch of the three feet of Appalachian topsoil removed by mining companies.
To get at the coal, first all the standing trees are removed. They're either burned or used to fill excavated valleys. After years of preserving their lumber, many locals consider this waste a final insult.
Then bulldozers come in and plow under the homes. Families had been living in Lindytown since 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made his voyage across the Atlantic.
Five homes in Lindytown remain clustered by this cemetery, which is protected from mountaintop mining by at least 1,000 feet. The church and everyone else who lived here is gone, following the 2008 buyout of local families.
Once the homes are gone, miners bring in the blasting agent ammonium nitrate/fuel oil (ANFO), poured into large holes drilled in the ground.
Once the ANFO is in place within a series of holes like this seen here, it is detonated. The ANFO residue, silica, coal, and rock dust then burst into the air, where it can fill communities miles away before settling to a coat of dust.
Under the powerful internal explosion the mountain cleaves apart. Up to 1,000 feet of mountaintop will be removed to expose the coal.
Then the coal is excavated, often using mammoth machines called drag lines. The boom is hundreds of feet long and its bucket holds space enough to fit about 26 full-size American sedans.
Even at up to $US100 million apiece, a dragline is still cheaper for mining companies than the slew of miners it replaced. A dragline like this will help tear down a mountain within 12 months.
Loaded into the gargantuan Caterpillar 797s that run about $US5 million each and weigh, fully loaded, greater than 1.3 million pounds apiece. Below is a full-size school bus sitting in front of two 797s.
To help understand the scale, consider that the top edge of the 797 body here is more than 50 feet above the ground it sits on.
The rock is used to build dams or 'valley fills' that hold back up to millions of gallons of coal waste called 'slurry.'
The people living below those slurry ponds live in constant fear of a dam bursting, like one did in 2008 at the Kingston Fossil Plant in neighbouring Tennessee.
Despite the risks, business is booming here in West Virginia. More than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried in valley fills since MTR mining began in the 1970's.
Unlined ponds are suspected of allowing many toxins, like MCHM that spilled into the Elk River, to leach into the ground and into aquifers and streams leading as far away as the Potomac and the Gulf of Mexico.
The creaky conveyor belts are often running 24 hours a day to get as much coal as possible out of the ground and into the marketplace.
When the available coal has been fully removed from a site, part of the deal companies make with the government for its extraction, is a promise that they'll set the land back to its original condition in a process called reclamation.
The reclamation process begins with an application of hydroseed. A mixture of seed and mulch that clings to the coarse rock and dirt below.
Once the hydroseed takes hold a flush of green will coat the mountain debris giving it a life-sustaining appearance.
While mining companies are legally required to replace topsoil they've removed, waivers are granted if not enough remains on the ridge top. In that case a 'topsoil substitute' may be used instead.
But there is only so much that can be done, and the resulting growth falls short of bringing back the once diverse ecosystem.
All that's left is to get the coal into the marketplace, moving as much as possible by roads, rivers, and rail.
All else aside, there is no debating the monetary value of coal. A typical train hauls out about 10,000 tons of coal. At today's price of about $US60 per ton, that's $US600,000 of per load.
West Virginia's annual output of 135 million tons of coal draws in more than $US8 billion in taxable revenue to the state.
Despite working in one of the most economically depressed areas of the country, West Virginia's coal workers have an average annual wage of $US86,796 a year -- 89% higher than the average worker.
Though shrinking reserves and the switch to mountaintop removal have cost the state more than 100,000 mining jobs, there are still around 21,000 full-time miners ...
Though these numbers are expected to rise over the next couple of decades, neither the jobs nor the coal will last forever.
Mount Hope, W. Va. has lost nearly half its population since the heady underground coal mining days of the late 1950's and early '60's.
Today the city's residents sell pieces of their past as the town's history seems to hold more promise than its uncertain future.
Longtime residents face the prospect of spending their final days here, resting in remote graveyards where loved ones can no longer freely visit.
Once the coal runs out, the people of West Virginia will enter a future even more uncertain than the one they face now.
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