Tennessean: Method presents a health hazard

By: State Rep. Mike McDonald

Posted on April 9, 2010

For the past three years, efforts to prohibit the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee have failed in our legislature. Just last week, a bill that I sponsored, which would ban the practice along our state's highest peaks, was blocked in a subcommittee through the use of an infrequently used procedural tactic. Using political maneuvers to forestall a straight up-or-down vote on this nonpartisan issue is not just unfortunate, it's unconscionable.

Mountaintop removal mining is the most extreme form of strip mining ever practiced. Coal companies clear-cut forested peaks and literally blow the tops off of mountains using high-powered explosives. Thin seams of coal are scraped out and the excess "mine spoil" is then dumped into adjacent valleys, burying streams below under tons of discarded earth. Nearly 2,000 miles of rivers and streams across southern Appalachia have already been buried and polluted by mining waste, contaminating downstream waterways and drinking water with toxic chemicals including manganese, mercury and selenium.

Selenium, which in excess kills aquatic species, is found at levels 20 times higher than the safe legal limit around Zeb Mountain in Campbell County. These are the headwaters of the Cumberland River, one of Middle Tennessee's most important sources of drinking water. Dr. Dennis Lemly, the nation's foremost expert on selenium, warned members of our legislature about the hazardous effects of mountaintop removal mining and its impacts on water quality and human health.

In a recent study released in the journal Science, leading scientists cautioned, "Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of kidney disease. Health problems are for women and men, so effects are not simply a result of direct occupational exposure of predominantly male coal miners."