It’s well known what kind of impact that coal can have on the environment. That’s why it makes sense that we (as a society) investigate other types of energy sources. But what you might not know is how coal has completely transformed the landscape in Central Appalachia. Coal mining in Central Appalachia dates back to the 18th century. But the more modern version of coal mining comes from extracting coal in a way that requires cleaning forests and sometimes blowing up mountains. Is this why Donald Trump is pro-coal mining? That aside, a new study reveals how the mines in the region have converted mountainous lush forests into desolate landscapes of destruction.
From 1976 to 2015, strip mining and mountaintop removal contributed to wiping out about 1.5 million acres of forests across 74 counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. For reference, that’s three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The study was authored by researchers from Duke University as well as SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices, which are environmental nonprofits that oppose surface mining.
These groups conducted the study by looking at satellite images and identifying active mines by analyzing the normal amount of vegetation in the region and looking for areas where tree cover was low or nonexistent. Their algorithms excluded any regions that were not within a mine permit boundary and likely to be forested. They also removed any tiny parcels of land unlikely to be an actual mine. In addition to looking at land use change, they also found that current coal production could help predict the amount of land converted into active mining five years later by comparing the results with federal mine production data. For every metric ton of coal, a company produces, roughly 129 square feet are mined. This is a dramatic increase compared to the less than 10 square feet required per every metric ton of coal that a 2013 study found.
What does this study indicate? It sheds light on the ways surface mining has changed the landscape (literally). These days the valleys are higher in elevation and mountain ridges are broader and lower in elevation. This also has an impact on the environment because plants don’t grow the same. And well, if the plants aren’t growing the same way, animals can’t rely on them in the same way etc.
Not only that, but mining also messes with people’s health. The region is now dealing with an increase of black lung disease from mining. Not to mention, the whole impact that mining has on the climate. The coal mining industry isn’t what it used to be. Production, as well as prices, are both dropping. But that hasn’t stopped the industry from stripping the land of its other natural resources, which is clear given the findings of this study.
But if the coal mining industry becomes obsolete, what will happen to the coal miners themselves? Well, there is the idea that coal miners could be put to work reclaiming the abandoned mines. Rather than framing it as the end of their livelihood, why not give an alternative? While I’m not sure that this will spark the end of coal mining, I do hope that these kinds of studies will help show the impact it’s having on the environment so that informed decisions can be made in the future.