Across Michigan, utility companies are proposing the construction of seven new coal-fueled power plants to meet the state’s rising energy needs. Corporate CEOs are arguing that the plants are necessary, while citizen groups–such as Clean Energy Now–are opposing the plants.
However, behind the coal that provides us with much of our electricity are destructive mining processes that are destroying the natural environment and ruining communities across Appalachia.
Where Michigan’s Coal Comes From
While much of this advocacy work highlights the cost of coal-fueled pollution in terms of CO2 emissions and global warming, the question of where the coal burned in Michigan comes from, is often ignored. Michigan has not mined coal since the 1960s, instead importing it from Wyoming and Appalachia where coal seams are more lucrative.
In recent years, coal mining–which always has been associated with environmental degradation–has adopted more destructive technologies, such as mountain top removal mining. Mountain top removal mining is a process through which the tops of mountains are blasted off to expose seems of coal. This process dumps earth in the surrounding valleys, often polluting waterways and occasionally destroying homes.
Consumers Energy uses coal obtained through this process to fuel coal burning plants servicing the Grand Rapids area.
Longwall Mining: A Lesser Known, but Still Destructive Process
However, while mountain top removal mining has received considerable attention, another destructive mining technique–longwall mining–has received little attention.
Earlier this month, the Center for Public Integrity released a report titled “The Hidden Costs of ‘Clean Coal’: The Environmental and Human Disaster of Longwall Mining” that looks at this technique. Following its year long study, The Center writes:
“…most Americans have never heard of longwall mining. Our project aims to change that, and to expose the havoc wreaked by an industry peddling a “clean coal” campaign. The longwall machine may not look as dramatic as blasted mountaintops, but it is quietly collapsing not just the ground below but the communities above it.”
How Longwall Mining Works
Longwall mining has been developed for use in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern Appalachia about thirty years ago. It’s attractive to coal companies because it increases productivity and profits. It manages to increase productivity because unlike traditional coal mining techniques, longwall mining extracts all of the coal in a seam.
The process uses underground mines with large steel shearers that slice off entire coal seams. Removing the coal seams leaves caverns that can be up to five feet tall. No coal remains, which leaves a void cut out of the ground. This void is often filled by collapsing earth–a phenomenon called “subsidence.” Subsidence causes disruption to wildlife, the depletion of water resources, and damage to surface structures.
Effects of Longwall Mining
Longwall mining is having a devastating affect on Appalachia according to the report:
- Structures above a longwall mine almost always suffer subsidence, forcing homeowners to contend with such damages as shattered foundations, crooked roofs, and cracked plaster. By last September, 1,819 property owners had reported longwall damages since the state began documenting such complaints.
- Longwall mining dams, diminishes, and dries up water sources. Scientists have found the practice is permanently lowering the area’s water table and draining its aquifers; state regulators have reported damages to 23 stretches over 97 miles of mined streams.
- The environmental fallout has hit farmers so hard that the agricultural land and farming community are dwindling.
- State policymakers have fostered this destruction through the mining law and environmental regulations, leaving citizens virtually powerless to undo harm.
Despite these effects, mining companies are generally allowed free reign to mine wherever they wish, provided that they work with homeowners to address structural damage and damage to water supplies. These commitments are addressed with varying degrees of success, with coal companies occasionally offering up solutions–such as the use of water buffalos when wells dry due to the mining–or downplaying the damage.
Longwall Mines Produce an Increasing Amount of Coal, but with Little Oversight
In 2007, longwall mines produced 176 tons of coal or 15% of the total US production. An estimated 10% of all electricity now relies on coal obtained through this process. After debuting in the 1980s, 40% of coal mines used longwall mining by 1993.
However, despite the prevalence of longwall mining, government regulation is limited and often tends to function mainly as a way of “rubber stamping” the plans of coal companies’. Coal companies and government officials have downplayed damages, saying that it is difficult to know what potential consequences may be in advance.