A new method developed in collaboration with the Nicholas School of the Environment allows researchers to quantify the environmental damage of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Using satellite imagery and coal production data from a 20 year period, a team—including Emily Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry—calculated the environmental damage made per ton of coal removed through mountaintop mining. The study found that every year mountaintop coal removal produces hundreds of miles of polluted streams and prevents thousands of years of carbon sequestration.
“The most basic part of this is that we’ve managed to mine a huge area…and we before now haven’t really known how much coal is produced per unit area of [environmental] disturbance,” said co-author Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University.
Co-Author William Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and former dean of the Nicholas School, said the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining were already known to be severe, as evidenced by the tremendous toll the process takes on the landscape.
“If you want to alarm yourself, go to Google Earth and move…your cursor over any part of eastern Kentucky or Eastern Virginia and click down a couple levels and you’ll see these incredible scars,” Schlesinger said. “You can’t miss them.”
The study will provide hard data on the impact that mining will have on the local environment.
“With this paper we can actually begin to put things in common units,” Bernhardt said. “For every ton of coal you pull out of that landscape, here’s how much land you’re likely to disturb, here’s how much stream pollution you’re likely to cause…here’s how much forest carbon sequestration you’re likely to lose.”
She added that the coal industry often cites positive economic statistics on the impact of mining each ton of coal.
“You can use [this new information] to counter that,” Benhardt said.
The large scale impacts of mountaintop removal mining are especially concerning given that the process only provides a small percentage of total U.S. coal usage, Schlesinger said.
“We would be able to produce plenty of coal without surface coal mining,” Bernhardt said. “The question is if we were to actually incorporate these environmental externalities and if people other than the…future people of West Virginia were paying those costs, would it still be cheap?”
According to the Associated Press, Patriot Coal Corporation—one of the largest coal corporations in the eastern half of the country—has already agreed to cease mountaintop removal mining for economic and environmental reasons.
The three authors agreed that almost all other methods of extraction for coal and other fossil fuels have lower environmental impacts than mountaintop removal mining.
“In mountaintop mining you have a lot of destruction per unit coal relative to what you might be producing relative to other types of coal mining,” Bernhardt said.
Lutz noted that the approach taken by this study also opens the door to comparisons between different methods of extraction of various fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas obtained through fracking. Each competing method of fuel extraction will have different environmental impacts, so comparisons will be essential, he added.
“Increasingly we’re going to need information that allows us to compare across energy types so that we can make decisions about what types of fuel we’re going to produce based on their relative environmental impacts,” Lutz said. “Being able to do this for coal is a first step.”