The Worst Thing About Mountaintop Removal Isn’t the Exploded Mountaintops.

What is the future of coal?
Nov. 30 2012 5:45 AM

Finally, a Victory Against Mountaintop Removal

The first crack in a firewall that has protected big coal for decades.

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It’s these downstream impacts that came back to haunt Patriot. Selenium is a micronutrient that bioaccumulates up the food chain and has been linked to a variety of problems, including deformed fish. Selenium contamination downstream from Hobet and other Patriot mines is chronically high. Patriot had thus violated the terms of the Clean Water Act it promised in its permits to observe. Environmental groups took to the courts to get those terms enforced. Cleaning up selenium contamination is complex and expensive; when Patriot agreed to a major cleanup last January, it took on a crushing obligation estimated at $400 million.

And that was the whole idea, the environmentalists say. Until now, companies have not paid a significant price for the collateral environmental damage they cause. “When you look at a company like Patriot which has scores of outfalls across dozens of permits, you’re taking some serious money to come into compliance,” says Derek Teaney, an attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that brought the litigation. “It just revealed, in stark terms, exactly what expenses there are when a company is forced to internalize these costs rather than just having the environment bear them.”

Mountaintop removal’s impacts on human health are fuzzier, but here too new findings are painting an alarming picture. Since 2009, Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, has produced a series of peer-reviewed studies with various colleagues that show an association between proximity to surface mines and various health problems: cardiovascular illness, cancers, and birth defects.

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Hendryx has begun investigating whether there is a causal connection for any of these. Finding a systematic link between local environmental contamination and such a wide range of health problems would be quite unusual. But in a study published in September, he and several colleagues collected particulate matter from around a mountaintop site in southern West Virginia, consisting mostly of sulfur and silica: that is, dust from the rocks pulverized by demolition explosions and other mining activities. They exposed rats to it, and their lung tissue showed telltale signs of stress that’s a common precursor to cardiovascular problems. Next up, Hendryx says he is planning to collect more samples from air, water, and soil around mountaintop sites.

As with the environmental evidence, such public health findings are likely to cause more legal and regulatory problems for coal companies. Of course, the companies have been aggressive, and mostly successful, at defending their interests in the courts. After years of indifference to the issues under Bush, the Obama EPA has tried to assert more authority over mountaintop permits. The EPA is supposed to enforce the Clean Water Act, and the more aggressive posture is part of the “War on Coal” that energy companies furiously denounce. But the agency’s efforts have so far been rebuffed by the courts as an overreach: Under the weird legal regime that governs mining, it’s the Army Corps of Engineers, not the EPA, that has the ultimate say-so over those permits. This is why the Patriot settlement is a breakthrough: It is a crack in the legal firewall that has protected mountaintop removal for 20 years. If more selenium suits follow, it may crack further.

Long-term, such big cleanup costs could be a big drag on surface mining, which is already facing serious economic headwinds. The Appalachians have been actively mined for more than a century, a longer time than any other region of the United States. The easy-to-get stuff is long gone. Mountaintop removal is a product of this trend. Blowing the tops off mountains offers an economies-of-scale approach to coal mining: bigger mines, fewer employees, lower operating costs per unit. Until recently, aggressively expanding the practice helped make up for plunging productivity. (In central Appalachia, coal mine productivity fell 45 percent, an average of 5.9 percent per year, between 2000 and 2010.) But overall production has continued to fall. Add to that increasing competition from natural gas. Over the past year, low gas prices have driven down the domestic price of coal, and the Appalachian coal industry has been particularly hard-hit. Some producers are shifting their focus to metallurgical coal, a higher-quality form that is mined underground, rather than the thinner seams exposed by mountaintop mines.

Someday, some combination of economic forces and regulatory control will make mountaintop removal untenable. Even when that happens, though, there’s no way to rebuild a mountaintop or unfill a valley. Which means those blots on the landscape, and the environment, will linger for decades—or centuries.

John McQuaid is a Washington-based journalist. He has written about mountaintop removal for Smithsonian magazine and Yale Environment 360. He is working on a book about the science of taste. Follow him on Twitter @johnmcquaid.