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Coal: Keep mining or change the scope

February 22, 2012
Times Leader
By ZACH MACORMAC, For The Times Leader

To some, coal mining is a major job creator that can move forward without destroying the ecosystem by using proper methods to burn the coal. To others, it is an energy of the past in which the jobs can be redirected to newer energy sources — sources they believe will not harm the environment. President Barack Obama has been pushing the nation toward new, renewable energy options such as wind and solar. Coal proponents, though, say the industry is practicing better environmental protection and can continue on for centuries without devastating local ecosystems. So what are the environmental effects of coal mining? Is it more prudent to develop coal mining to be more environmentally friendly or to change the scope and transition to something different? Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said West Virginia alone has more than two centuries worth, or 50 billion tons, of coal still unmined. He added only 14 billion tons of coal has been mined in the Mountain State since the American Civil War. Raney said advances in geological engineering are preventing permanent impact on the environment. Wheeling Jesuit University professor and environmental engineer Ben Stout said coal mining in general is deadly for the environment. With innovations in solar, wind and geothermal energy options, he said “it doesn’t make sense” that the nation does not at least consider a transition in energy sources. He called mountain top mine removal a “game changer” because he said taking 400 to 500 feet from a peak can flip the immediate ecosystem. Stout said other types of surface mining, such as strip and contour, also have a “variety of effects” like local water contamination, reduced air quality and a scarred landscape. “We can always put (the environment) back together,” Raney said, noting the process takes several years, but companies are obligated to reclaim the land. Stout added underground mining methods, such as longwall and room and pillar, are “not as bad” but there are subsidence problems. Raney said many underground mines today are scaled and backfilled once the coal supply dries up. But before that happens, he said engineers “need to predict” where there are surface disturbances and address them. He added older mines not sealed and treated by today’s standards are revisited under the Abandoned Mine Land Program started in 1977. Stout said he believes today’s young adults will be responsible for breaking ground on an alternative to coal. He predicted that, by 2035, a new energy source could be fully integrated for homes and automobiles. Raney said a transition to new energy at this point is “very shortsighted.” “We have more coal than in any other country,” he said. “And we’re getting better at mining it everyday.”



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