Alexander Op-Ed in the Tennessean: Time to end mountaintop removal mining

Posted on April 11, 2010

Tennessee Voices

Coal is an essential part of our energy future, but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops and streams in order to have enough coal. Millions of tourists spend tens of millions of job-creating dollars in Tennessee every year to enjoy our mountains — a natural beauty that, for me, and I believe for most Tennesseans, makes us even prouder to live here. 

That's why Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and I have introduced The Appalachian Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate to end the coal mining practice of blowing off Appalachian mountaintops and dumping the rubble in valleys
and streams.

Saving our mountaintops is important whether we are talking about cleaning up air pollution, banning 50-story wind turbines from scenic ridges, or ending the practice of blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the waste in streams. People live in Tennessee and tourists visit us to enjoy the natural beauty of the mountains — not to see smoggy air, massive ridgetop towers, and filled in streams and valleys.

Method pollutes streams

Mountaintop removal and valley fill coal mining occurs mostly in the 12 million-acre coal-bearing region of Central Appalachia. This mining practice is limited in part because of the area's unique geology, characterized by steep slopes and narrow valleys. Companies have found that the least expensive way to reach shallow coal seams is to blast the tops off these steep slopes and then use heavy machinery to push the mining waste into the valleys below. This has become more prevalent and more destructive in recent years. As available coal seams become thinner, mining operations must move more earth for each ton of coal that they recover.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2013 mountaintop removal mining will have destroyed 1,189 square miles (761,000 acres) of forest or nearly 7 percent of the region's forest that existed in 1992. Already, more than 500 mountains have been affected and 2,000 miles of mountain streams have been buried.

An increasing body of science tells us that mining waste filling the streams releases toxic pollution that destroys water quality in a way that can never be reversed. In January a Science magazine article described "serious environmental impacts" with "a high potential for human health impacts."

The material used to fill Appalachian valleys can contain toxic contaminants like lead, arsenic, mercury and selenium, and the impacts are cumulative, with more dramatic affects on water quality and stream life as mining activity in a watershed increases.

Tennessee state law today prohibits dumping excess coal waste into streams, but this was allowed in the past. We need to make sure that it doesn't start again. Our federal legislation would not ban surface mining as it is presently practiced in Tennessee, but it does help to make sure that our mountaintops will continue to be protected for us and for our visitors and that our streams will be safe from the pollution of mountaintop removal mining in other states.

Recently, EPA announced that it would limit permits for mountaintop removal mining by setting a higher standard to prevent water pollution from future mining operations. But our legislation is needed to end the practice before its destruction is so expansive that the Appalachian region can never recover.