Encyclopedia of Appalachia
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Coal Mining

At least since the late nineteenth century, coal mining has played a significant role in shaping the lives of residents of Appalachia. It determined patterns of settlement and residence, transformed cultures and values, influenced local and state politics, and set the course of the region’s economic development. Coal mining has also greatly affected the natural environment in the region, causing deforestation, acid mine drainage and siltation of streams, air pollution and acid rain, and degradation of soil. Since the 1930s, state and federal governments have attempted to control some of these environmental effects through regulatory legislation but with only moderate success. As a result of weak laws, poor enforcement, and increasingly destructive surface mining, many serious environmental consequences continued through the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Coal is found in Appalachia in an area stretching from northern Alabama to northeastern Pennsylvania. The mineral formed more than 300 million years ago when spores, ferns, conifers, and ancient scale trees growing in tropical swamps fell into the bog and were carbonized. The position of the coal in rock layers was determined primarily by uplift, erosion, and subsidence, while its rank—whether it would become lignite, bituminous, or anthracite—was due to varying amounts of heat and pressure from structural deformation of the earth’s crust. Around 230 million years ago, flexural activity in northeastern Pennsylvania hardened bituminous coal into anthracite. Pressure drove off gases and impurities, increased the proportion of carbon, and left an organic compound with a high heat output and low ash content. On the eastern edge of the Appalachian Plateaus Province, coal was similarly affected by folding and compression, but it was not subjected to enough pressure to cause metamorphosis into anthracite. To the west, beyond the deformation zone, bituminous coal retained much of its volatile gases and sulfur.

Mining for coal in what became the United States began as early as 1750 in the Richmond field around the James River in Virginia. Production of coal in Pennsylvania started a few years later in the bituminous Pittsburgh bed, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, anthracite mines had opened in the northeastern fields. In Ohio, commercial production began in the late eighteenth century at Pipe Creek in Belmont County and started in other eastern counties soon after. The earliest records of production for eastern Kentucky also date back to the post–Revolutionary War period, when coal was mined in Lee County. Coal production did not start in east Tennessee and what is now West Virginia until the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Early mining in Appalachia included primitive forms of both underground and surface extraction. Miners often drove short tunnels into stream banks where currents had exposed coal beds. Using picks and shovels, they followed the outcropping until the bank began to collapse or until the roof was stabilized with timber props. By the midnineteenth century, miners also used horse-drawn steel scrapers, drills, and black powder to expose and dig into coal beds. For the most part, these methods were small-scale, fit easily within the patterns of daily life, and had only minimal impact on the physical and organic environment. In the 1870s, however, markets began to expand beyond local users. Industrial investment in the region led to a proliferation of railroad lines and the beginning of large-scale coal mining in Appalachia. In order to increase production, coal-mine operators adopted sophisticated technologies, which continued to evolve over succeeding decades. By the mid-twentieth century, variants of surface extraction (area, contour, and auger) became more prevalent. Surface mining overtook underground mining as the dominant method during the second half of the twentieth century. The environmental effects of large-scale coal mining have been vast. By the late nineteenth century, industrial underground mining required substantial amounts of timber for roof props, and cutting for these props destroyed animal habitats. Later, strip mining cleared large forest tracts and produced a similar impact on wildlife. Deforestation from underground and surface mining also has affected wildlife populations and contributed to erosion, sedimentation of streams, and flooding. Stripping the land of its vegetation increases surface runoff, clogs creeks and rivers with sediment and debris, and causes floods in areas where none have previously occurred. Often flooding leads to the permanent displacement of residents, especially in counties where coal and land companies own most of the land.

Another significant impact of coal mining on waterways is acid mine drainage, which reached critical levels in some areas of Appalachia as early as the 1920s. By the 1960s, acid polluted nearly six thousand miles of streams in the region, primarily in the Susquehanna, Allegheny, Monongahela, Potomac, and Delaware River basins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. Most of this pollution, a result of the exposure of sulfur-containing pyrite and marcasite to air and water, came from abandoned deep mines. By the 1960s, surface operations also represented a significant source of water pollution, though surface mines, both active and abandoned, accounted for less than 30 percent of the acid drainage at the time. In a 1966 study by the U.S. Department of the Interior of strip mines throughout Appalachia, more than half of all water samples taken one to two miles downstream from mine sites were found to be acidic (with pH values of 5 or less). Surface operations continue to cause siltation of streams and disastrous floods while active and abandoned mines pollute waterways and groundwater with acid mine drainage.

In addition to the more familiar types of water pollution, inadequate oversight and failure of coal slurry impoundments have led to significant problems. One of the more devastating failures of an impoundment occurred in 1972, when a wall of water, mud, rock, and other coal wastes rushed through the valley of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, killing 125 people and destroying sixteen communities. In October 2000, more than 250 million gallons of coal slurry broke through deep mine workings below a Martin County, Kentucky, impoundment, seriously fouling residential areas and polluting Coldwater and Wolf Creeks as well as the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River.

Coal mining and consumption have also polluted the air, both in miners’ work environments and in the general atmosphere. The danger faced by miners from inhaling carbonaceous particles was recognized by some doctors and scientists in the nineteenth century, but their claims were disputed by other health professionals, government officials, and coal operators until the late 1960s. Meanwhile, coal dust in deep mines became increasingly worse with the introduction of continuous and longwall mining machines. Pollution of the air by burning coal reached notable levels with the growth in the number and size of urban areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and rose even higher with the increased number of coal-fired power plants in the mid-twentieth century. Emissions from these plants have caused acid deposition, a product of the mixing of sulfur and nitrogen oxides with rain or other forms of precipitation. Measurements of precipitation on Mount Mitchell in western North Carolina, for example, have recorded readings as low as 2.12 pH, about the same level of acidity as that of lemon juice.

The direct impact of deep mining on land has generally been restricted to isolated though serious cases of subsidence and erosion around haul roads. Surface extraction has caused degradation of both arable and nonarable soil on a large scale. By the mid-1960s, more than 740,000 acres of land in Appalachia had been directly affected by strip mining for bituminous coal, in addition to 59,000 acres in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania and 74,000 acres disturbed by mine-access roads. More than a third of this acreage was on steep slopes, and only one-fourth of the land was reclaimed. As a result, there were massive slides, some more than 600 feet wide, along 1,400 miles of strip-mine terrace benches. Even when operators attempted to reclaim sites, they often failed because mining reshuffled soil layers and exposed silt shales with much of the topsoil buried, and newly exposed soil was too acidic to sustain plant life. The consequent failure of revegetation compounded erosion problems, which had an impact not only on actual mine sites but also on surrounding areas. In cases where strip operators mined under broad form deeds—which separated surface and mineral rights and were interpreted by Kentucky courts as allowing for destruction of the surface without compensation to the owner—directly affected lands often included farms, gardens, orchards, and grazing areas.

More recently, mountaintop removal, a newer and more destructive form of strip mining, has become predominant in some regions of Appalachia. Under this method, giant power shovels and draglines are used to remove entire mountaintops. The removed material, or "overburden," is dumped into huge valley fills, often burying mountain streams. For a 2003 draft of a court-ordered environmental impact statement, state and federal agencies evaluated the effects of mountaintop-removal mining on a 12-million-acre study area including parts of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and east Tennessee. The study concluded that 6.8 percent of the forested territory in that region "has been or may be affected by recent and future (1992–2012) mountaintop mining." Of the 59,000 miles of streams in the area, the draft reported that 724 miles had been covered by valley fills between 1985 and 2001, while a total of 1,200 miles had been affected. The study concludes, "Mountaintop mining operations in the Appalachian coalfields involve fundamental changes to the region’s landscape and terrestrial wildlife habitats. With the increasing size of these operations, a single permit may involve changing thousands of acres of hardwood forest into grassland." Attempts to rectify some of the environmental problems caused by deep and surface mining date back to the early twentieth century, but weak state and federal regulatory laws, poor enforcement, and the steady expansion of strip mining (which surpassed deep mining in production levels by 1973) have conspired to hamper the effectiveness of these efforts. At different times, in various parts of Appalachia, mountain residents have organized to demand stronger laws, stricter enforcement, and even abolition of surface coal mining altogether. At best, however, implementation and enforcement of these laws have been inconsistent. Some of the consequences of strip mining on surface soil have been addressed by state legislation, beginning with West Virginia in 1939, and eventually by the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. This federal law set up a partnership between the Department of the Interior and state agencies, leaving control of regulatory programs in the hands of the states as long as they met or surpassed standards outlined in the act, which banned dumping debris on steep slopes and established an abandonedmines reclamation fund to restore "orphan" lands. However, even these regulations produced comparatively meager results. There are now at least one thousand abandoned coalmining sites in eastern Kentucky and even more in Pennsylvania, despite a surplus of more than a billion dollars in the abandoned-mines reclamation fund and that program’s imminent expiration. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act also allowed variances to provisions requiring restoration of land to "approximate original contour" and placed only weak restrictions on mountaintop removal. Additionally, the law allowed stripping without the consent of surface owners if permitted under state law. Mining by broad form deeds was not outlawed in Kentucky until activists amended the state constitution by referendum in 1988. See also: BUFFALO CREEK FLOOD; COAL (GEOLOGY); COAL SLURRY IMPOUNDMENTS.

—Chad Montrie, University of Massachusetts at Lowell Harry M. Caudill, My Land Is Dying (1971); Alan Derickson, Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster (1998); Chad Montrie, To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia (2003); Barbara Ellen Smith, Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease (1987); Richard H. K. Vietor, Environmental Politics and the Coal Coalition (1980).

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