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Mountain Top Removal: The Secrets Behind Coal

 

Have you ever wondered why the lights turn on when you flick the switch? Have you ever thought about what generates the electricity that runs through your favorite campus hangout?  How about what powers the illegal hotplate in your dormitory? Chances are, it’s coal. The United States receives 48.2% of its generated electricity from coal, and 64% of electricity in Georgia comes from coal. As such, the odds are that what powers our hotplates, light switches, and laptops here at Emory are powered through the processing of coal. Therefore, one may wonder, where does coal come from?

Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, is a process used to remove coal from where it has fossilized in a summit ridge of a mountain. It has been practiced for decades, and increased demand for coal in the United States has only created more economical incentives for coal mining. Mountaintop removal in and of it is quite involved. The coal mining begins with the removal of all of the forested areas, which also includes the scraping away of herbs and topsoil. Usually, there is a large loss of wildlife habitat and vegetation. After the trees are cleared, explosives are set up to create a strong blast, and large machinery removes the excess soil. A dragline digs into the mountain to locate and expose the coal deposit. These machines are massive, known to weigh up to 8,000,000 pounds with a base as big as a gymnasium and as tall as a 20-story building. The massive machines then remove layer after layer of coal, meanwhile dumping excess mountaintop in to the nearby areas, creating valley fills. Sometimes, those operating the machines attempt to replace the excess debris and mountaintop back to where it was before.

This process of extracting coal through mountaintop removal has been known to destroy ecosystems such as swamps and forests. Science Magazine wrote, “The extensive tracts of forests destroyed by mountaintop removal support some of the highest biodiversity in North America, including endangered species.” The burial of streams by the valley fills causes irreparable damage to ecosystems that play crucial roles in ecological processes and support vital aquatic organisms. “…Valley fills in the central Appalachians, streams are characterized by increases in pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids due to elevated concentrations of sulfate, calcium…” and other compounds which directly cause environmental degradation. Mountaintop coal removal is also known to have a negative affect on human health due to pollution, which stems from dislodged airborne toxins and dust. Increased rates of lung cancer, hypertension, kidney disease, and lung disease were found in locals and in coal miners and are linked to the mountaintop removal (Science, 2010).
 Although the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the U.S. Clean Water Act have attempted to regulate and mitigate the negative effects of mountaintop coal removal, mine-related contaminants still exist. Forests are still destroyed, streams polluted, and biodiversity lost. These acts and measures being taken are far from adequate. Since Obama has been elected to office, EPA Lisa Jackson has put into place procedures that will deter, if not halt government proposals for new mountain top removal sites, in order to better reevaluate the effects of mountain top removal on the environment.

 This time last year, the Emory Environmental Alliance lobbied at the state capitol for House Bill 276, which would prohibit Georgia from using mountaintop coal for electricity. The bill, which was pending in the Georgia legislature, did not pass. EEA Co-President, Andrew Tate says,“ [Mountain top removal] is a despicable practice. The way we have been treating the Appalachian Mountains says much about us. It says something about our relationships with our homes and the land we fight so hard to protect. We should support cleanup projects to neutralize the areas we have allowed our negligence to destroy. Not to mention, the health hazard it poses is simply incredible. It has been linked to autism, Alzheimer’s, ADHD and other neurological disorders. If we start moving towards alternative energy sources, anything but coal, we could be independent of it within ten years.”

 As Emory students, we are constantly encouraged to go “green” and live sustainable lives.  By turning out the lights, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and living “green”, we can decrease the demand for electricity, and therefore decrease the demand for electricity generated by coal. Although these efforts are admirable, we should take it one step further and urge our congressmen to support stringent regulations against mountaintop coal removal and stronger measures against those who violate the rules and mitigation plans. Remember, the power is yours!

-Melia Haile ’12

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