Researchers from Duke University and the non-profits SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices released a first-of-its-kind study Wednesday showing the year-by-year impact of surface coal mining in Central Appalachia.
The study revealed, among other things, that one out of every 14 acres in the region — which includes about 32,000 square miles of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia — has been altered by surface coal mining operations. To put that into perspective, the amount of mined lands in the region is roughly three times that of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The study also affirmed that the amount of land impacted by surface mining per ton of coal extracted has skyrocketed in recent years, tripling since the 1980s.
The increased costs of moving all that earth is one reason why Appalachian coal has struggled in recent years to compete with coal mines in less mountainous terrain, such as in Western Kentucky, and with the natural gas industry, researchers said.
Though the amount of land needed to extract one metric ton of coal has increased, the amount of mining in the region has still declined because it is less financially viable to mine coal in mountainous areas like Eastern Kentucky.
Researchers hope the study — which is accompanied by visualized data sets showing how much land is impacted by surface coal mining — could assist researchers who want to study the environmental and health impacts of these mines.
In addition, the researchers said the data could be used by regulatory agencies and law enforcement officials who monitor the mandatory reclamation of mine sites.
Christian Thomas, a geospacial analyst with SkyTruth who worked on the study, said companies have used surface mines to access coal seams in Central Appalachia for more than a century. That process involves removing all trees and vegetation from the mine site, then blasting into the earth to reveal the coal.
The process can have drastic and negative impacts on wildlife, water quality and the health of nearby residents, he said.
“Researchers have already spent a lot of time looking at these impacts,” Thomas said. “For instance, some studies point to relationships between mining and increased rates of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, pulmonary disease and birth defects in the areas near mines.”
To show the scope of surface mining in the region, researchers used Google’s Earth Engine platform to analyze more than 10,000 individual satellite images of the region from 1985 to 2015. Eventually, they plan to add data from the 1970s, and will continue to update the data annually.
Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, said the new study shows that research on the impacts of surface coal mining is continuing, and will continue, despite efforts by the Trump Administration to halt it.
In August of 2017, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement suspended a study that it funded through the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to investigate the health risks faced by people who live near surface coal mines.
The Environmental Protection Agency, as well, has attempted to stifle research regarding surface coal mining during the Trump administration, Wasson said.
“While this study certainly doesn’t change any of that, it does show that despite some of those efforts, the research is continuing,” he said. “And it is continuing to show ... increased impacts of coal mining and mountaintop removal mining on the landscape.”
The researchers said one of their primary hopes is that their data could be used by local and state governments to find mine sites that qualify for federal funds for reclamation projects.
The federal government, through the Abandoned Mine Lands pilot program and the RECLAIM Act, distributes millions of dollars to state governments to help reclaim old surface mines that could be used for economic development.
As researchers expand the data set, they hope it will reveal which areas could qualify for some of those federal dollars.
“This is the kind of tool that we think is going to be really at the heart of our ability to facilitate that funding going to where it needs to go,” Wasson said. “That’s just one example — there’s a bunch of other ways I think this could be used in reclamation.”