With the constant barrage of recent ads on the television touting clean coal energy, many people are asking how does mining affect the environment.
It is a great question and the answer is not as clean and clear, as one would hope to find.
How Does Mining Affect the Environment - The Trees
It does not take a rocket scientist to look at the process and immediately understand how mining affects the environment.
Before mining can begin, the land is cleared. The first issue is deforestation. Deforestation immediately destroys wildlife habitats. As the land is cleared and low bushes and vegetation burned and destroyed, wildlife either moves on or dies.
Deforestation affects the nesting habits and migratory patterns of birds, as well as the pollination of flowers and edible plant life. It destroys the homes of valuable insect life as well. The process of turning CO2 into oxygen cannot take place.
In any eco-system, life is dependent on the whole sum of its parts. When a tree falls in a forest, it is immaterial if someone hears it or not. What is important is that its loss can have an immediate, profound, and very visible effect on the survival of other life in, around, and near it.
The Ground and the Watershed
Mining re-configures the land and its contours. Rain and subsequent ground water is diverted. As equipment is sunk and the ground hollowed out, chemicals such as cyanide, mercury, methyl-mercury and arsenic are forced through pipes (tailings). The water that runs off goes into streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes.
Thus, a large-scale mining process can affect the environment, including the human environment miles away from the original mining site. Exposure to chemicals poisons the human body causing everything from skin rashes to cancer. Drinking water with lead and other chemicals can affect babies and cause birth defects.
In addition, the growth of vegetation whether natural or planted can be affected by the water. Fish are subject to being poisoned and fish breeding grounds are destroyed between chemical poisoning and the diversion of the natural flow of clean water.
Water also has a tendency to collect in any pools of water left standing in pits as the earth is dug out. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other microorganisms. Diseases such as malaria and meningitis are linked back to these insects.
Coal As Clean Energy? Not So Fast
60 Minutes ran one of the most startling stories in October of 2009 regarding coal. The amount of coal burned in the United States to produce electricity produces 130 million tons of waste and coal ash. The coal ash as a byproduct contains the same heavy chemicals as the pipes or tailings mentioned in the above paragraph - mercury, arsenic, and even lead are present in highly toxic amounts.
Generally gotten rid of by being disposed in lined, prepared beds, coal ash is said to be safe. However, coal ash is not usually disposed of properly and is dumped in rivers and ponds. An estimated over 500 of these slurry ponds exist.
In December of 2008, one of the largest retention ponds containing over 1,000 tons of coal ash, 60 feet high, broke and subsequently spilled into the Emory River, in Kingston Tennessee.
60 Minutes described it as a black tsunami as it surrounded and over took homes, broke trees, and destroyed fishing, boating, swimming, and other river activities. Left in its wet muck state it is bad enough, but as it dries it becomes a powder that can be lifted by the wind, deposited in the air, and have dire consequences for anyone breathing it.
People have abandoned homes, lost millions, and what is left of Kingston is treated as a hazardous waste dumpsite. People with no other place to go and live remain in their homes, and remain exposed to the toxic chemicals.
Coal Mining - Some Hope
Mining for fossil fuels such as coal, or even for gems and gold, has always been about the money. Coal mining provides jobs that are steady and command a reasonably decent paycheck in this economy. There are safe practices companies can follow to protect the safety and health of their workers, communities, and the environment.
Their choice to do that must be encouraged as it is one tree in this particular forest that everyone around the world will feel the effects of if it is allowed to fall. It is past time to put the efficiency back into mining coal and other fuel sources in terms of energy efficiency.