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Coal Mining: Pros and Cons

Coal Mining

“The average internet user (12 hours per week) uses over 300 pounds of coal annually for this purpose.”When listening to Dan Miller speak on behalf of Friends of Coal, I found his statistics rather boring until flipping through the booklet he handed out listing quick facts on coal, I found this fact. Previously unknown to me, this fact was shocking because as a person on the outside of the battle between friends of coal and environmental activists, I was taking such a large role in the consumption of coal. I am on the internet many more than twelve hours a week; I am consuming more than 300 pounds of coal annually from a state that provides 50% of all American coal exports.

As I have come to realize, the mining of coal is not just about either being for it or against it. There are political, economic, social and environmental aspects to it that all need to be considered before one “chooses sides.” Politically, mining is hindered with the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. A limit enforced by the Clean Water Act is that all pollution discharge (including from coal mines) are required to have permits issued by the National Discharge Pollution Elimination System process. Limits are also placed on the type and amount of discharge. This puts a strain on coal companies who do mountaintop removal mining. When the tops of mountains are removed for the coal to be extracted, the excess dirt is dumped into the adjacent valley. Limits on the amount of discharge from these mine sites into nearby streams severely hurt the cost of mining companies. The SMCRA requires mine operators to develop restoration plans before mining. Environmental groups rejoice at this and the CWA’s requirements but both political decisions affect coal companies economically. Restoring a mine site to almost the same condition as it was before it was mined is no inexpensive feat.

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A common quote explaining the economic situation of coal in West Virginia is that “every coal mining job creates another five to eight jobs somewhere in the economy.” The coal industry is what runs West Virginia. If it were to be suddenly taken out of the economy, another industry would have to take its place. A positive economic statistic for coal is that last year its value was “$4.4 billion-greater than that of coal mined in any other state.” The negative side however is that people such as Freda Simpkins from Beech Creek, who spent $4000 on replacements to property after legal blasts from coal mines destroyed her well, are suffering while coal companies are raking in the big money.

Social aspects of sides drawn on coal mining were seen in our very own West Virginia Politics class. When discussion first took place on the issue, most students didn’t say many opinionated things against or for coal mining; they just had questions. One boy in the class had grown up around coal, his father was a miner and he had many questions to ask about the legality of his father’s company’s practices. Dr. McLeod-Simmons invited 2 speakers to come to our class: United Mine Workers Association Representative Dan Miller to speak on behalf of coal, and Professor of Environmental Science, Dr. Jeffrey Simmons to speak on the environmental aspects of coal mining. When Mr. Miller spoke of opponents he had to face and debate with everyday on the subject of coal, he seemed almost bitter (especially when Judy Bonds was mentioned). It is clear that the subject of mining is a divided one in the state of West Virginia. Too many it means a way of life, a way of earning money for one’s family, and survival. To others, it means devastation to one’s home from nearby blasts. It means flooding of childhood homes possibly caused by valley fills. Environmentalists and Friends of Coal speak heatedly and it seems as if there will never be a compromise on the issue.

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The environmental aspect of coal is one of the most debated. Mountaintop removal is the most heated topic for discussion. In Dr. Simmons power point presentation, he stated that valley fills obliterate headwater streams meaning less water and less carbon to streams below. As before mentioned, it is a common belief that valley fill leads to excessive flooding. This environmental issue has not been proven but is a punch in the stomach for friends of coal. Dan Miller said that his association likes to think that “Floods happen to them. They don’t cause them.” Many residents of southern counties in W.V. disagree.

Toxic acid mine drainage is another thing that happens when coal mines are left abandoned close to towns. There are over 2100 known abandoned mines; most leak acid mine drainage, impacting over 6500 miles of streams in the Appalachian region. Mining also plays a heavy impact on soil even in places where land is restored back to its original contour. This is because soil contains a very complex structure that takes hundreds of years to develop and up to 150 years to be replenished by organic matter after mining.

The political, economic, social and environmental aspects of mining contain more statistics for its abuses to the land than its good deeds. Coal brings in jobs and money into W.V.’s economy but it also destroys homes built by hard-earned cash by southern citizens. It causes great debate in society because of its environmental and economic factors. It has been the cause of two political acts ratified in the 1970s for the protection of the land. Is it good or evil?

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West Virginia Coal Association, Coal Facts 2003. Published by the West Virginia Coal Association: Charleston, WV (2003).

Dan Miller: United Mine Workers Association.

Penny Loeb, Sheer madness. U.S. News and World Report, Inc. 1997.

Dr. Jeffrey Simmons: WVWC Professor of Environmental Science.