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The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal

Down in Washington, Pennsylvania, an hour’s drive southwest from Pittsburgh, one message can be found plastered on billboards, newspapers, even diner placemats. It reads: "Coal, Pennsylvania’s #1 Fuel for Electricity. Now Clean and Green."

Those last words probably don’t spring to mind for citizens in the coalfields of northern Appalachia, where longwall mining thrives. A highly productive method, longwall mining yielded 176 million tons of coal in 2007—15 percent of total U.S. production. An estimated 10 percent of all U.S. electricity now depends on coal from longwall mines, which have grown in Appalachia and in Illinois, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

But longwall mining is the most brutal technology yet employed to extract coal from underground quickly and cheaply. A hulking shearer, the longwall machine chews the coal seam and leaves the ground to cave in what the industry calls “planned subsidence.” Residents living above mines describe the effect differently. Says Rebecca Foley, whose historic house has been shaken apart by the shock waves:
It’s like living through an earthquake that happens in slow motion.

Northern Appalachia represents that epicenter. In southwestern Pennsylvania, six of the country’s top 25 longwall mines snake below 138,743 acres of rural terrain—15 percent of the area. By contrast, the remaining 19 mines are scattered among West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and western states. Nationwide, no other place has as many operations—or as many citizens living above them—as southwestern Pennsylvania.

This project examines social and environmental impacts of longwall’s full-extraction method. Our first article exposes the David-versus-Goliath battles that define the region, and documents the landowner’s dilemma: He must fight not only the powerful coal industry, but also indifferent state officials. The second article looks at the method’s steep environmental price: Longwall mining has sucked surface and ground water into the earth, and left behind disrupted aquifers. The result? Residents have had to sacrifice their way of life for “clean coal.”

Consider these findings:

  • Structures above a longwall mine almost always suffer subsidence, forcing homeowners to contend with such damages as shattered foundations, crooked roofs, and cracked plaster. By last September, 1,819 property owners had reported longwall damages since the state began documenting such complaints.
  • Longwall mining dams, diminishes, and dries up water sources. Scientists have found the practice is permanently lowering the area’s water table and draining its aquifers; state regulators have reported damages to 23 stretches over 97 miles of mined streams.
  • The environmental fallout has hit farmers so hard that the agricultural land and farming community are dwindling.
  • State policymakers have fostered this destruction through the mining law and environmental regulations, leaving citizens virtually powerless to undo harm.

Today, the country is building more power plants that will burn the coal from this area; indeed, northern Appalachia ranks as its third largest coal-producing region. And yet most Americans have never heard of longwall mining. Our project aims to change that, and to expose the havoc wreaked by an industry peddling a “clean coal” campaign. The longwall machine may not look as dramatic as blasted mountaintops, but it is quietly collapsing not just the ground below but the communities above it.

Source: The Center for Public Integrity - 12 January 2009

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