Mountain Top Removal

COAL-articleLarge

West Virginia is coal. It has 30 billion tons
of coal reserves. It produced 158 million tons of coal in 2008. Half of the United States’ electricity is derived from
coal-fired power plants. The state has 20,000 coal-industry jobs.

Even though West Virginia sends Democrats to Congress, these Democrats typically vote down any environmental laws that would affect the coal industry. All politics is local.

In their eagerness to get at coal supplies more efficiently, coal companies have started taking down whole mountains, instead of their traditional burrowing underground.

Mountain Top Removal is clearly horrific for the environment and for quality of life, but people need jobs. It's a classic environmental policy trade off. The spotted owl vs. the loggers. The sea otters vs. the oil workers.

Environmental activists are trying to reshape that deadlock between cute animals and hard working Americans, but developing green careers. Have the coal workers make wind farms instead. I don't think they are there yet, but it's an interesting twist in this drama. 

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=1247468621885&playerType=embed

6 thoughts on “Mountain Top Removal

  1. “In their eagerness to get at coal supplies more efficiently, coal companies have started taking down whole mountains, instead of their traditional burrowing underground.”
    It’s probably a lot safer for the miners, too.

  2. 20,000 is a low number. In 1940, there were 130,000 people employed in the coal mining industry in West Virginia.
    As a result it has gotten more mechanized, and safer, and more efficient, but also less of a source for jobs. Tonnage has increased as employment has gone down.
    I’m not sure why we should care about 20,000 jobs for miners (General Motors laid off half that many just last year). If anything, the battle is between environmentalists and people who use electricity.

  3. No, mountain-top removal is not safer for miners. There are different sorts of dangers involved in moving that quantity of rock and dirt. Granted, it’s far less labor intensive, so fewer people are at risk on the jobsite.
    Then again, if you work out the environmental costs for RESIDENTS (not the furry or feathery kind, but the human kind), then mountain-top removal is a complete natural disaster.
    There are very few industries that damage the surrounding ecosystem that don’t have some pretty dire human costs, too. It’s not just “sea otters versus oil workers.” They’re both harmed. It’s just that the need for the oil workers to eat and clothe and shelter themselves tends to push the longer-term health and safety issues down the priority list.

  4. “Granted, it’s far less labor intensive, so fewer people are at risk on the jobsite.”
    Right. I was googling “china mine” this morning and it looks like you could spend hours going through page after page of mass Chinese mine fatalities.

  5. Generally, those mountain tops get dumped into waterways, which often contaminate the water, not just for animals and fish, but for humans, too. The EPA places limits on how much can be dumped, but you know the companies go over those limits all the time. When the dirt can’t be put into rivers and streams, it’s put in other places–valleys, people’s back yards. My father has represented many a coal worker. Whether they’re going underground or blasting tops off mountains, the conditions are not pretty.

  6. No source of energy generation is pretty, so part of its control has to include the consumption end. I’ve always thought that there’s something wrong with the way that environmental, indirect, and long term costs are included in the costs of products (electricity and oil are two big examples, but there are lots of others).
    The video suggests that wind power would be less expensive than coal if one calculated the health costs of coal — mostly respiratory disease caused by coal particulates. That’s an interesting calculation, and one I find believable, but it requires calculating the costs of wind power, too, including transmission lines, lack of reliability, bird hazards, etc.

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