Coal mining: Threat to Alabama waters

By on March 13, 2013
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Until recently, the effects of mining on human health have largely been ignored. However, scientific research suggests that the effects of coal mining could be seriously detrimental to human health. This news is particularly troubling in Alabama, which has a long history of coal mining.

BWWB Intake on the Mulberry Fork just 800 feet across the river from a tributary<br /><p class=that will discharge pollutants from Shepherd Bend Mine. Photo by Nelson Brooke & www.blackwarriorriver.org" width="150" height="150" class="size-thumbnail wp-image-20890" /> BWWB Intake on the Mulberry Fork just 800 feet across the river from a tributary
that will discharge pollutants from Shepherd Bend Mine. Photo by Nelson Brooke & www.blackwarriorriver.org

The Black Warrior River watershed is one of the largest coal-producing regions in the South. Today, it contains 90 active coal minds. Currently, there is no national standard for coal emissions. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has also consistently failed to enforce environmental laws that protect water quality. As a result, the Black Warrior River and its tributaries are heavily polluted; these are major sources of drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama communities. Mining run-offs are contaminating the water supply, causing a potential public health problem.

Researchers at the University of West Virginia found that communities surrounding coal mines had higher rates of respiratory disease, cancer, and death. This is likely because carcinogens, toxins and dust infest the water and air. Harmful metals like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, chromium, mercury, and arsenic also contaminate the environment and precipitate these health risks.

Besides water and air contamination, mining operations overburden the land. In areas where the strip mines are, there have been multiple hazards such as landslides, sedimentation, and flooding. Mining disrupts the ecosystem, destroying many beneficial micro-organisms in the topsoil. It alters the topography of the area which would also negatively impact nearby farming. As a result, farms nearby to the Black Warrior River watershed are struggling to produce crops because the mines are slowly killing the land.

To combat these environmental issues, the U.S. Government is currently researching ways to burn coal in a more environmentally conscious means. However, there is some skepticism whether this is a fool’s task. According to energy scientist Dr. Michael Hendryx from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Even the cleanest coal burning power plants still produce more greenhouse gases, mercury, and more pollutants than any other form of energy that we have.” He is doubtful that coal could ever become “clean” because of the extraordinary resources required to extract coal. Heavy equipment, chemicals, and vast amounts of water are all used in the extraction, processing, and transportation of coal. Even before coal is burned, the processes used to cultivate it release a significant amount of pollution into the atmosphere.

With thousands of people both in Birmingham and throughout Alabama depending on the Black Warrior River and its tributaries for drinking water and power, the pollution of the water supply due to mining cast-off is a serious public health risk. To prevent further damage, mining regulations must be enforced. To curb this growing problem Alabama must diversify its energy sources and hold coal production companies to high environmental standards.

shejuti Paul
Staff Writer
paul0217@uab.edu

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