Mountaintop Removal Mining or MTR is basically a form of surface mining which involves removal of a mountain’s summit ridge or a significant portion of a mountain so that the desired geologic material is obtained (Burns, 2005). In the process, the mountain’s topography is significantly altered as miners use explosives in the removal of up to 400 vertical feet or 120 meters of so-called overburden to expose the coal seams underneath. Entire coal seams are removed from the top of the mountain by first removing the land or so-called overburden that lies above them, with the resulting debris piled back on the ridge so as not to totally alter the mountain’s topography. However, the excess amounts of debris consisting of soil, stones, plants and even animals now full of toxic byproducts are dumped into nearby valleys and streams.
I have heard about it sometime ago from some environmentalists on a National Geographic show on television that featured the Appalachian Mountains where Mountaintop Removal Mining has been reportedly prevalent.
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According to Gardner and Sainato, 2007, MTR is the predominant method used to extract coal from the coal-rich mountains. Coal is a fossil fuel that is formed through biological and geological processes over a long period of time. Coal formation starts from conversion of dead plant matters into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then into sub-bituminous coal, then into bituminous coal, and finally into anthracite. In its final form, coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock occurring in rock strata in so-called layers or veins referred to as coal beds or coal seams (Freese, 2003).
Coal is a precious resource used in a variety of purposes. In the entire history of humankind, coal has been a useful resource, as it is burned for electricity and/or heat generation as well as for industrial purposes like refining metals. Nowadays, coal is primarily used as a solid fuel in the production of electricity and heat through the process of combustion. Worldwide, consumption has reached about 6.75 billion short tons in 2006 with a projected increase of 48% to 9.98 billion short tons by the year 2030 (Lipton, 2012). According to World Coal, Coal and Electricity (2012), at least 40% of the world’s electricity comes from coal.
Another form of coal is Coke, which is a solid, carbonaceous residue derived from low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. Metallurgical coke is being utilized as fuel as well as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in blast furnace. In the making of Coke, valuable byproducts are produced such as coal tar, ammonia, light oils and “coal gas”. On the other hand, Petroleum Coke is a solid residue derived from oil refining. This resembles Coke but has too many impurities that it cannot be used in metallurgical applications. Coal gasification is another use of coal, wherein syngas, which is a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) gas, is produced. This syngas is converted into transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel through a high-technology process. Coal liquefaction is yet another form of coal usage wherein coal is converted into liquid fuels such as gasoline or diesel through several processes. Other forms of coal that are valuable in industrial processes are refined coal and finely ground bituminous coal.
Although it is apparent that coal mining has been an essential industry especially in energy generation all over the world, it is also costing a lot in terms of environmental degradation. According to Palmer, et.al (2010), Mountaintop Removal Mining has serious environmental impacts which include loss of biodiversity and watersheds destruction, not to mention the adverse impacts on human health resulting from contact with affected streams or exposure to airborne toxins and dust. Gardner and Sainato (2007) state that MTR is a destructive and unsustainable practice, benefiting only the few corporations at the expense of local communities and the environment.
The environmental damages are brought about by the massive deforestation of the mountaintops prior to mining operations, with the lumber either sold or burned. Once the area is cleared, explosives are then used to blast away the so-called overburden, which is composed of rocks and subsoil so that the coal seams beneath are exposed, and the debris from the process are dumped into nearby valleys and streams, toxifying the lands and bodies of water in the process.
Although the main issue is about the physical alteration of the landscape, environmental experts claim that the massive deforestation, the destructive transport trucks, the blasting of explosives at MTR sites and the dumping of overburden debris into the valleys and streams cause huge damage to the environment. Added to these, blasting at MTR sites also expels dust and fly-rock into the air, disturbing private properties nearby. Grave health consequences are brought about by the dust which contain sulfur compounds that pose health threats, and which also corrode structures.
MTR sites abound in the Appalachian Mountains in North America, where extensive tracts of deciduous forests have reportedly been destroyed by mountaintop mining, coupled with a particular problem with burial of headwater streams by valley fills causing permanent loss of ecosystems which play critical roles in ecological processes. In addition, increases in metal ions, pH, electrical conductivity, total dissolved solids due to elevated concentrations of sulfate are closely linked to the extent of mining in West Virginia watersheds, and declines in stream biodiversity have been linked to the level of mining disturbance in West Virginia watersheds (Lipton, 2012).
A lot of alternatives to the MTR have been surfaced by environmentalists, like the use of alternative fuels such as biodiesel. However, should it still be inevitable to rely on coal, then there must be some regulations in the processes, for instance, if there is really a need for deforestation or clearing of the area, then there must be a government regulation that would allow MTR only on areas that are not thickly forested. The use of explosives must be minimized or regulated, and MTR corporations must be required to rehabilitate the mining sites immediately. The debris must not be dumped into streams and valleys that are used by the public.
This issue is very much relevant to me in my everyday life because I live in this world that is basically benefiting from the energy produced by coal, but at the same time I am also witnessing the environmental destruction caused by MTRs all over the world as flash floods and soil erosion become more and more prevalent. Reports of communities within the MTR areas suffering from serious skin and respiratory diseases stir within me some feeling of anger at why such things are not prevented in the first place. I am hoping that these mining corporations will also take it upon themselves to incorporate Social Corporate Responsibility into their whole business systems.
I personally believe that it is rather inhumane to gain profit from destroying not only the environment but also the communities. However, I also recognize the importance of providing mankind with fuel and energy because these are also needed for growth and development.
I therefore look forward to a balanced world, where sustainability is considered along with the short-term growth and development. This is not impossible when business realizes that it is good business sense to take care of the people in the community and of the environment, for when the people are well, the business will also prosper. And when the environment is well taken cared for, business will surely be sustainable and prosperous.
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