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Exploradio: The true costs of mountaintop removal
New research shows that 3,000 miles of mountain streams have been impacted by mountaintop removal mining to produce just two years worth of coal
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


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Jeff St. Clair
 
A valley in West Virginia is filled with the overburden of a mountaintop removal surface mine. Coal seams that are too thin for conventional mines are accessed this way, at disproportional environmental costs according to new research.
Courtesy of Brian Lutz
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Mountaintop removal is the controversial mining process where layers of rock and soil that sit above a thin seam of coal are stripped off and dumped in adjacent valleys. Half the coal produced in central Appalachia now comes from these kinds of mines.

New research is putting an environmental price tag on each ton of coal produced this way. And it allows for comparison of mountaintop removal with other energy sources.

In this week’s Exploradio, Jeff St.Clair talks with one of the authors of the study, Brian Lutz, bio-geochemistry professor at Kent State University.

Exploradio: Mountaintop removal

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About half the coal produced in central Appalachia comes from mountaintop removal surface mines like this one in southern West Virginia.  Although the environmental costs are high, the economics are cheaper than shaft mines because half the labor force is needed.
The typical coal seams in mountaintop removal mines like this southern West Virginia operation are about 1 meter thick, according to a new study. The total production of the mines over the past 30 years has impacted 3,000 miles of mountain streams.
Brian Lutz teaches bio-geochemistry at Kent State University. His research interests include energy extraction and the environment, ecosystem ecology, carbon and nutrient cycling.
 
A new study shows that the environmental costs of the mining technique known as mountaintop removal far exceed the amount of coal produced compared to other energy sources.

The study published last week by Kent State University’s Brian Lutz, along with Emily S. Bernhardt from Duke University, and William H. Schlesinger from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York measures the environmental impact versus the amount of coal extracted from 20 years worth of mountain top removal in Kentucky and West Virginia.  

Lutz says, “We find the footprint of mining practices is really quite staggering with respect to the amount of coal that we’re able to take home at the end of the day.”

The team has for the first time tied the environmental impacts of surface coal mining directly to the coal production rates.  They studied satellite data to determine the amount of area mined by mountaintop removal in a 47 county area of Kentucky and West Virginia. This was compared with county-level coal production data between 1985 and 2005 to determine the amount of coal produced per unit of land disturbance. 

Lutz says, "to meet current US coal demands, an area the size of Washington DC would need to be mined every 81 days."  His data shows that the environmental impact of mountaintop removal is huge compared to the amount of coal produced. Lutz says, “Over a 20-year period more than 2,000 square kilometers of the landscape was mined, and that yielded just about two years of current U.S. coal supply.”  That’s nearly half-a-million acres of forest turned into grassland.

Lutz and his team also measured the extent of stream impairment based on water quality loss per ton of coal, and the amount of carbon sequestration potential lost to the removal of trees on the mountaintops.  Their analysis shows that, according to Lutz, "A one-year supply of coal would result in around 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) of stream impairment and a loss of ecosystem carbon sequestration capacity comparable to the global warming potential of more than 33,000 US homes."

The study "The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal" is available at PLOS_ONE.org.




 
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