Coal Mining

One of the main sources of energy in current society is via the use of coal. Coal is a fossil fuel similar to gas or oil that is harvested by mining as it is often found beneath the surface of the earth or high on a mountaintop. At first glance, it of course seems like an easy way to provide various sorts of energy and also to provide thousands of jobs in the mining industry. Upon further review, however, coal mining has some serious disadvantages as well. With all the recent more environmentally-minded action that is occurring worldwide, it is time to reconsider coal mining and whether or not it does more harm than good. In an effort to preserve the earth and support the environment, finding, preferably renewable, sources of energy has become a major issue. Like other fossil fuels, coal is non-renewable and will eventually run out. Therefore, it is important to begin thinking about ways to either break from coal mining and move to more renewable energy sources, or to find a way to update the coal mining system in an effort to stretch the remaining amount of fossil fuels.

Clearly there are both pros and cons when it comes to the use of coal and coal mining. Coal obviously is a popular source of fuel and energy and has been for some time. Coal is easy to burn and can help especially when used as fuel for trains and other locomotion. It also can be used to provide electricity. In 32 states, coal provides up to 99% of electric power. Coal oil, or kerosene, as it is better known, has also been used consistently for all sorts of lighting purposes. It is very easy to transport coal and it is fairly inexpensive because it is easy to mine and is at least for now, available in large amounts. Coal mining itself is a huge part of the economy in the more Southeastern region of the United States. According to the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, coal mining makes up more than $3.5 billion annually in the gross state product list. With so much mining occurring, over 30,000 jobs in West Virginia alone are related to the coal mining industry, allowing the state to produce over 165 million tons of coal annually.

Initially coal mining appears to have a good number of benefits. While it does indeed provide numerous jobs and make up a large portion of the economy, unfortunately, there are also numerous disadvantages to coal. One of the major problems caused by coal mining is the impact on the environment. Often with coal mining, especially mountaintop mining, valleys are filled with the waste and refuge from the mines. This causes serious environmental damage in the surrounding watersheds. According to, the EPA has stated that “burying streams with mine wastes increases salt levels in waterways downstream, hurting fish and other aquatic life”. And while not yet officially proven, it is commonly thought that perhaps dumping coal mining waste into river valleys can cause serious flooding. While many communities of the Appalachian area in particular are not concerned by these floods, environmentalists are pinpointing them as yet another environmental problem brought about by coal mining. Also while some areas may flood, the displacement of water can cause other streams to have less water flow. This problem occurs most often with mountaintop mining as the refuge must be placed elsewhere, i.e. in a valley or somewhere similar. Just recently the Obama administration began to really tighten the regulations when it came to surface coal mining. This new policy, according to the EPA, will “sharply reduce the practice of filling valleys with waste from mountaintop removal and other types of surface mines in a six-state region.” This new set of guidelines is particularly concerned with regulating water quality around the mining areas. This new plan is hoping to ban the majority of valley fills from mining and thereby do a deep cleaning of the mining system. As promising as this plan sounds, the problem is that it will likely cost the mining industry by removing a significant amount of jobs.

Besides flooding and causing problems with the watersheds, coal mining causes numerous other environmental problems. Finally there is the question of the actual mines themselves. The mining and burning of coal itself releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide which leads to all sorts of air pollution. Also, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a single coal plant generates annually the following: 10,000 ton of sulfur dioxide which in turn causes harmful acid rain; 500 tons of airborne particles causing serious respiratory damage to humans and other animals in the area; 170 pounds of mercury which can pollute fish in surrounding lakes; 225 pounds of arsenic which if ingested can cause cancer; and over 114 pounds of other deadly chemicals such as lead. The list is extensive but these are the numbers that really stand out. When abandoned, mine drainage can become toxic and seriously impact the surrounding soil, making it unusable. And despite providing numerous jobs across the Eastern part of the country, coal mining is not very beneficial for one’s health, to put it simply. The West Virginia Mine Safety web page has important statistics noting that there are less than 20 deaths per year due to mining accidents. Despite seeming like a comparatively speaking (20 out of at least 25,000) it still seems, at least in my personal opinion, that 20 fatalities is still not a very low number.

Clearly due to the major impact both economically and environmentally speaking, it is rather difficult to decide what to do when it comes to the issue of coal mining. It is interesting to view this situation from a utilitarian standpoint. Officially, utilitarianism strives to maximize utility and net benefits for the greatest number. On the side of the coal miners, it would seem that coal mining is a huge source of benefits. Not only does it provide an unbelievable amount of jobs, but it keeps the economies of several states afloat. Without coal mining, the economies of such states as West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee etc. would deeply suffer. If coal mining were to stop the economy would be crushed unless immediately replaced with some other form of profit. For example, coal mining provides 60% of West Virginia’s business. Environmentalists, however, would argue that if we really wanted the most benefits for the most people we ought to perhaps think about more long-term issues with coal mining. To start, they would argue that in the end, the serious health problems stemming from coal mining and the money that goes into caring for those affected would be greatly reduced if coal mining were reduced as well. They also might argue that the environmental damage is too great and that it would benefit us all to have a healthier living environment. Finally despite bringing in the money with which to build a living, it seems that that money would just go back into paying for medical treatment of coal-aggravated illness, and home care issues when the house and land has been tainted by coal mine runoff.

Some of the points made by the environmentalists also manage to touch on the issue of environmental justice. While the coal miners might argue that by keeping the industry alive they can guarantee a source of income for future generations, the more environmentally-minded likely would say that this is an environmental justice issue. This is because while indeed jobs will be available, the long-term health and safety hazards are perhaps not worth the risk. The question really becomes whether money or health is more valuable. It is extremely difficult to find some sort of compromise. It also seems that environmental classism is revealed in this situation. For the most part, Appalachia, where coal mining is prominent, is a rather poor part of the country. Those who are wealthier will likely choose to live far from the hazardous coal mines in the poorer areas. Yet those who are less wealthy are more likely to work in the coal mines and therefore live closer to them and suffer the consequences.

Finally there is the issue of wilderness preservation. A major component of any environmental discussion, coal mining is no different. It devastates mountain ranges when collected via mountaintop mining. Also the waste from mountaintop mining pollutes the lakes and valleys where it is placed, causing floods, stream droughts, and fish poisoning. The toxic drainage from abandoned mines also causes runoff which can greatly impact soil quality, so much so that it can take up to 150 years to recover, according to an article on Associated Content. Basically, it seems, coal mining does no good whatsoever for the environment. It certainly helps people in a various amount of ways from providing locomotion fuel, energy, electricity, and jobs. But when taking a good, hard look at the environmental facts, it is not looking too good for coal mining.

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