Solar energy is always said to help the environment. But, how exactly does it do that? First let's take a look at how fossil fuels effect the environment in order to put into perspective solar's impact. When you type into a search engine “Fossil fuels and the environment” you get page after page of scientists and environmentalists warning about the dangers of fossil fuels. But, how exactly are fossil fuels currently affecting our environment? Well, lets start from the very beginning, where fossil fuels come from.
How do we get fossil fuels? The usual methods include mining and drilling. Mining is used to extract the solid fossil fuels, whereas drilling is used for the gaseous or liquid fossil fuels. Coal is one of the more common solid fossil fuels that is mined and conventional oil and natural gas are the common ones that are drilled for.
Lets look at coal mining first. The most obvious threat that coal mining poses is to the very ones that extract it. Coal has long been known to the public to be detrimental to the health of those that work with it. This isn’t just from on site accidents, which are numerous. This is also from real health risks that have been discovered over the years. Black lung, pneumoconiosis, is the most well known health risk associated with coal mining.
Black lung develops after long term exposure to coal dust. The dust builds up in the lungs with the body being unable to expel it. It causes inflammation, fibrosis and, in some cases, even necrosis. Ever heard of a brown recluse and how terrifying their bites can be? Yeah, that’s because it can cause necrosis, which is basically cells dying. Frostbite can also cause a necrosis of the cells, in extreme cases. You know how you hear about people losing fingers and toes to frostbite? Imagine that except inside your body.
So, we know now the dangers of coal mining for the miners themselves, but what about the ACTUAL environment around us? How does the mining of coal effect the average person that is not a coal miner?
Firs of all, there are two types of mining. Surface mining, which is used for shallow deposits and deep mining which, you guessed it, is used for deeper mining.
Deep mining can cause changes the very water in the earth. Yes, water. Water is something that is needed for every living creature on the earth to live and mining can cause adverse effects to both surface water and the water beneath the surface of the earth.
When a mine is abandoned, sometimes, when they are not properly taken care of and observed, water can flow into the abandoned mine. What this can cause, is acid water due to the acid drainage left behind in the mine. This can also cause the water to become heavily contaminated by metals from the mine. When water reaches a certain level of acidity, it causes metal, such as iron, zinc, lead copper and manganese to accumulate in the water. What is the difference between this water and normal water? Well, signs of acid water can include: corrosion of fixtures, blue staining of copper pipes, rust staining of iron pipes and can cause pinhole leaks and pipe failure over time. Given the effects this water would have on your home, is it really something that seems safe to drink? This water can cause problems in local plant and animal life. Acid water slows the growth of plants and eventually causes them to die off. I guess it makes sense if a farming area doesn’t want to have mines built close by. This is to say nothing of the effects the water can have on animal life, which is obviously that it is unsafe for animal consumption.
Well, if deep mining can cause our water to be contaminated, maybe surface mining is better? From the very beginning, when surface mining is first started, it wrecks and destroys natural habitats. The process of surface mining begins by first getting rid of all obstructions, trees, plant life, animal life, all must go if surface mining is to be used. One of the most destructive types of surface mining is mountain top removal. Just like it sounds, this type of surface mining removes the trees, plant life and animal life, and then proceeds to blast away the top of the mountain with explosives.
In the Appalachian region, this of course includes our beautiful home state of West Virginia; there are nearly 500 mountaintop removal sites. This impacts roughly 1.4 MILLION acres of land. This causes both short term and long term environmental implications. When mountain top removal takes place, the massive amounts of excess rock and soil is dumped into close by valleys and streams. This causes the ecosystems in those areas to be completely changed and can cause the natural flow of streams to be diverted. Afterwards, coal removal sites are left with extremely poor soil condition. Something else to look forward to when surface mining is taking place is an increase in landslides, mudslides and flash floods.
We talked about how deep mining effects water quality, well, surface mining can also effect the quality of local water. Depending on what the chemical makeup in for the mine, local water could be contaminated with toxic chemicals such as, lead, iron, arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, manganese and selenium. This is only some of the health risks, as there have been many studies done that attribute things such as, lung cardiovascular and kidney disease and low birth rate and preterm births, to surface mining and the procedures it uses to procure fossil fuels.
By LaVetta Cain
West Virginia Writer, Solar Sales Representative
Coal Mining Threats to the Environment