Sunday, May 31, 2009

A little more on coal mining

I am reminded of the high price that nations have to pay, on occasion, for coal by the sad news of the death of thirty miners in a gas explosion at the Tonghua mine in the Chongqing municipality of China. Emotions over coal mining can become easily stirred by the inflammatory words that are sometimes used about the industry that we forget that there is often a real personal cost that comes with the provision of energy to the nations and their people. But the accident helps to emphasize a comment that I believe is important for the longer term preservation, not only of the industry, but also of its people.

In this case, as so sadly is the way in many, the result came about because known safety rules were apparently violated.
"The accident is caused by an illegal practice which violated the mining rules," said Luo Lin, chief of the State Administration of Work Safety said.
. We see the same thing in accidents that occur around the world. But is not only in the “wink and nod” violation of regulation of safety practices in the underground and surface that we should express concern. There are other factors, relating to mining operations, where, I believe that the industry is not doing itself any favors by trying to get around existing regulations.

I was led to this particular topic by a couple of articles (in the Los Angeles Times and the West Virginia Gazette, about the Administration attitude to mountain top removal of material to gain cheaper (and safer) access to the coal underneath. Essentially a number of President Obama’s supporters have been disappointed over his recent actions in regard to the policy in regard to this practice.
Basically they had been led to believe that the new Administration would ban the practice, but instead:
But in recent weeks, the administration has quietly made a decision to open the way for at least two dozen more mountaintop removals.

In a letter this month to a coal ally, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), the Environmental Protection Agency said it would not block dozens of "surface mining" projects. The list included some controversial mountaintop mines. . . . . . . . "It was a big disappointment," said Joan Mulhern, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that has led court challenges to mountaintop removal. "It's disturbing and surprising that this administration, headed by a president who has expressed concern about mountaintop removal, would let such a large number of permits go forward without explanation."
On the other hand this may be an Administration that is beginning to discover some of the harsh realities of life. That we do need coal, and that it can be mined in a variety of ways, depending on how thick the coal is and how deep. And that safe cheap means of mining are better than the alternatives.

Mountaintop Mining is a particularly controversial method. It is basically used in Appalachia where the coal appears as layers within the rock that make up the hills of that country. The EPA have described the process with diagrams of the different stages of the process. There are also photos on the site of the various stages of the process.

Now while I am in favor of methods of mining that make it safer for those that have to work to extract coal from the ground, (surface mining being much safer than underground) and strongly believe that coal will end up being as least as strong a supplier of energy to the global community in this century as it has been in the past, there are some times where one should be conscious of a larger goal than just producing coal. For example, this week A.T. Massey have been seeking to get a permit to carry out mountaintop removal as an expansion of their current mining in Boone County , West VA. But the regulators are balking, because Massey is apparently trying to get away with as little surface reclamation, after mining, as they can get.
In its permit application, Independence Coal says, "The pre-mining capability of the land is limited to unmanaged forest land and wildlife habitat because of the steep slopes and limited access.
"These steep soils are best suited to trees and shrubs rather than agricultural or other uses," the company said. "The inaccessibility of the area promotes a viable habitat for many wildlife species." . . . . . . In its permit application, Independence says the flat land created could be used for a variety of beneficial post-mining land uses. But the company writes off most of those possibilities.

"Because this mining and reclamation plan will produce level areas on the mountaintop and hollow fills, a variety of land uses after reclamation may be possible," the permit application states.

"Soils are generally too poor to provide intensive agricultural or horticultural development, although hay production and grazing has proven successful in many mined lands in the region," it says.

"Commercial or residential development of this property is not considered feasible at this time, but the nearly level land created by this project may present a future opportunity for economic or residential development."

Independence proposed "to reclaim the permit area to wildlife habitat and recreation." "A diverse vegetative cover will be established, providing habitat, food sources and protective cover for a variety of wildlife," the permit application said. "Over time, native plant species will likely invade the area, adding to species diversity.

"The surrounding area is covered in upland forest. The creation of wildlife habitat on the reclaimed mine site is therefore a viable postmining land use choice."
Now recreating a good wildlife habitat is not, in itself a bad thing. Regenerating the upland forest, with open pastures, may well encourage increased diversity of wildlife over that currently extant. But somehow one does not get the impression that the company intends to go that extra mile to make the results, post mining, of maximum acceptance to the community.

And this is my gripe, I suppose. We need coal as an energy source, the demand will be such that the price that will be paid for it will be quite sufficient for an adequate profit. Under such conditions it behooves the mining companies to go that extra mile to ensure that the land that they leave behind them is in better condition that when mining started. Further it is the role of the government to ensure that regulations are followed in a rational and reasonable manner to the good of all concerned. When this is not done then we find the problems that have plagued the industry around the world. Maybe it is time that we grew beyond that.

7 comments:

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