Jessie Hodal – Mountaintop Coal Mining: Appalachia

Jessica Hodal is an intern at National Geographic. She graduated in May 2010 from Stetson University with a BS in Geography and a BA in German.

knowledge of their mineral riches was commonplace enough in scientific
and industrial circles, most of the mountaineers had remained blissfully
ignorant of their significance and, frequently, of their very
existence. Few of them had ever burned anything but wood in the huge
fireplaces of their cabins, though in some areas, notably in Perry
County, mountaineers had occasionally dug a hundred bushels or so of
coal and floated it on rafts or flatboats down the Kentucky River for
sale at Richmond or Frankfort. Bell County, too, had been the scene of
considerable small-scale mining. But such operations were primitive and
minuscule and such knowledge of his coal as the plateau dweller may have
possessed had, more often than not, come to him quite by accident
rather than through curiosity and investigation” (Caudill, 1962).

evening in late May, Old Crow Medicine Show’s song “Wagon Wheel” kicked
off my fourteen hour drive to Lexington, Kentucky from DeLand, Florida.
Palm trees and coastline reflected in the rearview, while mountains and
bluegrass beckoned me toward Appalachia. As a child, I spent many
summers visiting my grandmother and exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains
with her. Collecting arrowheads, building forest forts, and sliding down
waterfalls are some of my favorite memories from there. Needless to
say, the magnificent landscape and intriguing past of Appalachia holds a
special place in my heart. After receiving word of my acceptance into
the UK/EKU REU: Appalachian Headwaters Program, I was extremely excited
for the experiences that awaited me.

The long history of coal production in Appalachia has
defined the region, with particularly intense activity in recent
decades. Mining industries have brought economic growth as well as
ecological, social, and political effects. The Southern Appalachian
Forest Region is responsible for 23 percent of U.S. coal production and
contains approximately 24 billion metric tons of high quality coal
remaining (Fox and Campbell, 2010). The polemics on mountaintop coal
mining (MCM), as a method of resource extraction, are multifaceted and
raise many concerns about the costs and benefits of such forms of
production. Centuries ago, coal had been mined with a pickaxe and a
wheelbarrow. Yet in recent times, the prevailing methods for extracting
coal have employed forms of surface mining such as MCM.

MCM, overburden is removed. The forests are cleared, the soil is
stripped, and the bedrock is blasted away to reach the underlying coal
seams. In many cases, residual rock fragments are pushed into adjacent
valleys creating valley fills, which bury existing streams. MCM methods
eliminate vegetation, change topography permanently, alter soil and
subsurface geological structures substantially and permanently, and
disrupt subsurface hydrological regimes (Shrestha and Lal, 2006). The
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMRCA) requires
mined sites to mitigate the impacts of coal mining by stabilizing slopes
to prevent erosion and landslides. Stabilization is accomplished by the
compaction of rock debris previously removed during the mining process.
Although reclamation helps curtail degradation, runoff from these sites
introduces a variety of other environmental issues. The combined impact
of increased overland flow, removal of overburden, and filling
neighboring valleys changes the geomorphic template of the watershed,
increases the hydrological response to storm events, and induces erosion
of downslope surfaces and incision of the stream corridor including the
streambanks (Fox, 2009). In other words, these reclaimed sites are akin
to paved parking lots.

140,000 kilometers of streams endow Kentucky with one of the most
extensive stream systems in the country. A watershed is an area of land
where all of the water drains into the same place. Headwater streams
feed larger catchment streams, which feed even larger rivers. Our study
site in Letcher County, Kentucky possessed an intriguing watershed in
the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The Lilley Cornett Woods served as
the control for our studies as we compared the surrounding areas
affected by mining. We knew not what lay before us. There were friendly
animals such as Max, the eager-to-please golden retriever. Also waiting
was a plethora of poison ivy, stinging nettle, sharp slippery rocks, and
murky orange water. Referred to as acid mine drainage, this orange
water is formed from the chemical reaction with rocks containing
sulfur-bearing minerals such as pyrite. I was the lucky one who
experienced this water firsthand after losing my balance and plunging
into a waterfall of the stuff.

Jessie_Hodal_Pic10.JPGEroded cut banks three to four
times my height showed signs of fluous anarchy running off from the
reclaimed mining sites and flash flooding. This highly conductive liquid
only exacerbates the fact that many people in rural eastern Kentucky do
not have adequate septic systems or they have pipes that dump waste
straight into the streams. Fecal coliform samples of these waters
revealed a shocking amount of E. coli present in the water. According to
the Kentucky River Basin Status Report, “the major environmental
problems in the North Fork watershed include habitat degradation, runoff
and siltation from mining, timber, and agricultural operations, illegal
dumping, and pathogens from untreated sewage–especially from ‘straight
pipes’–which have forced a ‘no bodily contact’ swimming advisory for
eighty-six miles of the upper reaches of the North Fork” (Banks, 2005).
Despite this knowledge, we persisted in braving the carrot juice-colored
cocktail of bacteria to gather our samples and data.

an active MCM site at Thunder Ridge was instantly sobering. Monstrous
yellow machines with tires that towered over us demolish ecosystems that
take epochs to form. While we had a blast camping, collecting samples,
and analyzing results, we could not escape the fact that coal is heavily
embedded in Appalachian livelihoods. Coal keeps the lights on and the
bills paid. No easy answers or simple solutions to MCM exist. Scientific
evidence, regulatory zeal, and grassroots movements against these
practices are mounting. In September 2010, thousands marched on
Washington to raise awareness for the impacts of MCM. However, before
these destructive practices can cease, we must find feasible energy and
income alternatives for the region. Ultimately, we must understand
Appalachia if we are to save it.

Suggested links:

A., Jones, A., & Blackeney, A. (2005). Headwaters: A
student/faculty participatory     research project in an Eastern
Kentucky Community. Journal of Appalachian Studies ,     11 (1 & 2),

Caudill, H. (1962). Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.      Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

J., & Campbell, J. E. (2010). Terrestrial carbon disturbance from
mountaintop mining     Increases lifecycle emissions for clean coal.
Environmental Science and Technology , 44     (6), 2144-2149.

J. (2009). Identification of sediment sources in forested watersheds
with surface coal miing     disturbance using carbon and nitrogren
isotopes. Journal of the American Water     Resources Association , 45
(5), 1273-1289.

Shrestha, R., & Lal, R. (2006). Ecosystem
carbon budgeting and soil carbon sequestration in     reclaimed mine
soil. Environment International , 32, 781-796.

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