An environmental advocacy group, using satellite images and a Google app, has documented the spread of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. Mines have gotten closer to human settlements since 1999. And they are linked to increased population loss and poverty.
The amount of coal excavated using mountaintop-removal mining in Central Appalachia has declined by more than half since 2008, but mountaintop removal’s impact on humans could actually be getting worse in some areas, a new report from an environmental group says.
The study by Appalachian Voices says that mountaintop removal mining is occurring, on average, closer to human settlements than it was 15 years ago. The study also shows that communities near mountaintop removal mines are losing population faster and have higher poverty rates than similar communities that are not near such mines.
“Communities where surface mine encroachment is increasing suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity,” the report said.
That’s true despite a 50% drop in Appalachian coal production since 2008 and a nearly 60% drop in coal mined through mountaintop removal, the report said.
“The risk faced by many communities from encroachment of mountaintop removal mining is growing, not declining,” the report said.
The study used a Google “geospatial analysis tool” to map the spread of mountaintop removal mining from 30 years of satellite images of Central Appalachia. That information was combined with data from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to determine whether mining had moved closer or farther from human settlements.
Poverty and population figures were pulled from U.S. Census data.
The study created an interactive map that charts the spread of mountaintop removal since 1984. It also created a list of 50 Central Appalachian communities that are “most at risk” from mountaintop removal mining. The list is based on the proportion of nearby land that has been surface mined and the rate at which surface mining increased between 1990 and 2014.
Nearly half of the at-risk communities were located in West Virginia. The study attributed this to the continuing demand for metallurgical coal found in parts of West Virginia, versus the soft market for steam-plant coal, which is mined throughout most of the Central Appalachian coalfields.
About half the 53 Central Appalachian coalfield counties included in the study had an at-risk community. Pike County, Kentucky, led the list with seven at-risk settlements, followed by Wise County, Virginia, with six, and Boone County, West Virginia, with five. Tennessee, the other state in the study, did not have a community on the at-risk list.
The study showed that mountaintop removal mining was occurring farther from human settlements on average until the late 1990s, when the trend reversed. (See the red line in the graph above.) The study theorized that mining moved closer to communities more recently because easier-to-mine coal was depleted.
The average mine was located about 1.5 miles from the nearest community in 2014, the report said.
Appalachian Voices is an environmental advocacy group that opposes mountaintop removal and has a campaign asking the Obama administration to ban the practice because of environmental impact and health risks.
The study follows academic research released last year by an Indiana University professor, Michael Hendryx, showing that dust collected near mountaintop removal mines damaged human lung cells in ways that indicate cancer development. Hendryx’s previous epidemiological studies have documented a greater incidence of cancer and mortality among people who live near the mines. The latest study showed a medical link between dust found near mines and cancer development.
West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Jason Bostic has said Hendryx's previous reports were "health journalism," not medical research.