Most children already have a fear of coal – after all, they are threatened during childhood that if they misbehave, Santa Claus will leave them nothing but a lump of coal in their stocking. The older members of society, too, have plenty of reasons to fear coal as an energy source. Burning it pollutes our air and water and threatens our health. Mining it can be deadly for workers. And the entire life cycle of coal threatens the global climate.
When it comes to coal, two major issues dominated the environmental news front this year in particular: Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) and coal ash. While MTR has become an issue that most people are familiar with, the threats posed by coal ash remain largely under-reported (stay tuned for more on that in 2012).
As for MTR, here is a brief rundown of what’s happening:
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) entails blowing the tops off of entire mountains in order to extract the coal seems within. The method became popular when coal companies realized that they could produce two and a half times as much coal per worker hour by removing the tops of mountains, rather than traditional coal mining methods. As a result, some states have reduced the number of coal workers by as much as 60%, while output and profits have remained steady.
In addition to the obvious loss of mountains, the practice is riddled with environmental dangers. In order to extract the coal, the areas around the mountain are clear-cut, destroying wildlife habitat and leading to soil erosion. The waste products from the coal extraction also leak into water supplies, contaminating them with mercury, lead, sulfur, and other dangers chemicals. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, a staggering 2,200 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains will have been destroyed thanks to mountaintop removal mining.