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Feature Story
How to Clean Coal
NRDC's Position on Coal and Mountaintop Removal
Readers' Letters | NRDC Replies | Back to Story

OnEarth's Fall 2005 cover story, "How to Clean Coal," generated a strong response from readers concerned about the harmful effects of mountaintop coal removal. The following letter from David Hawkins, director of NRDC's climate center, discusses NRDC's position on the damaging effects of mountaintop removal.

Dear Concerned Readers:

NRDC agrees that mountaintop removal (MTR) is an unacceptable assault on the land, water and peoples' lives. We are proud to be a partner with many individuals and organizations in fighting these practices in court and elsewhere.

We agree that coal mined with practices like MTR cannot be considered "clean," even if its emissions, including carbon dioxide, were eliminated. Air pollution from coal needs to be cut radically, but reforming the way coal is mined remains a high priority for NRDC.

In a May 2001 speech to U.S. Department of Energy officials and industry groups, I explained why we and others condemn not only coal's pollution but also the way it is produced:

"People who are concerned about expanding our reliance on coal hold those views for a number of reasons, starting with the impacts of coal extraction on the landscape. According to government statistics, coal mining has contaminated more than 12,000 miles of U.S. streams and rivers from heavy metals, acid mine drainage and polluted sediments. These long-term sources of pollution kill fish, vegetation and wildlife. Some of these wastes can persist for centuries. Over the last 30 years, only half of the millions of acres of land that coal mining has disturbed have been reclaimed to even minimum standards. More than 264,000 acres of cropland, 135,000 acres of pasture, and 128,000 acres of forest have been lost. The potential cost for cleaning up spoiled lands runs in the tens of billions. More recently, the practice of mountaintop removal has galvanized more communities into opposing destructive mining practices. Coal companies throughout Appalachia are removing entire mountain tops to expose the coal below. The wastes are generally dumped in valleys and streams.

"Mountaintop removal mines use very large explosive charges that shake and crack homes, destroy wells and roll huge rocks onto people's homes, cars, property and public roads. In some areas, residents are concerned about having their children wait outside for the school bus. In West Virginia, more than 300,000 acres of hardwood forests (half the size of Rhode Island) and 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by mountaintop removal strip mining. Just one mountaintop removal mine can denude up to 10 square miles and pour hundreds of millions of tons of waste material into as many as 12 "valley fills." Some of these "valley fills" are 1,000 feet wide and a mile long. Many of these practices run in direct opposition to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which Congress passed in 1977. In October of 1999, a federal judge ruled that entombing streams under millions of tons of earth violates the Clean Water Act and federal coal mining law. However, state and federal agencies, often staffed by former coal industry workers, have done little to enforce these laws."

May I suggest we need a two-pronged approach to fighting the damage caused by today's production and use of coal. First and foremost, we need a much more rapid expansion of the role that efficiency and renewables play in meeting our energy needs. At the same time, we need effective rules to protect us wherever coal is produced and used.

NRDC has been collaborating in the fight against the ravages of mountaintop mining with groups in the Southeast such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Appalachian Voices, Southwings, the Dogwood Alliance, the Tennessee Forestry Council and the Tennessee Wilderness Planning Commission, to name a few. We look forward to collaborating with these and other concerned groups to accomplish these goals.

Sincerely,

David Hawkins
Director, NRDC Climate Center

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OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council