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Researchers map out effects of coal mining in Central Appalachia

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 29, 2018 at 12:25 AM

Researchers with Duke University, Appalachian Voices and SkyTruth have collaborated over the past two years to develop an analytic tool marking the environmental footprint of surface coal mining and mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia.

On Wednesday, the researchers held a press webinar to announce their findings, which are now published online in PLOS ONE, an international peer-reviewed journal. Their research, titled “Mapping the Yearly Extent of Surface Coal Mining in Central Appalachia Using Landsat and Google Earth Engine,” mapped the year-by-year environmental effects of coal mining in the region over a span of 30 years.

In their findings, researchers found mining had been responsible for clearing 720,000 acres between 1985 and 2015, which accounts for about 3.5 percent of Central Appalachia.

Coupled with an earlier dataset covering the mid-1970s to 1984, researchers said the total amount of land cleared reached 1.5 million acres, accounting for 7.1 percent of the region. That’s roughly three times the size of the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Christian Thomas, a geospatial analyst for SkyTruth, said this mining has “far-reaching effects,” including impeding native forest habitats’ abilities to re-establish themselves and poor air quality that can cause various illnesses and birth defects in humans.

“It’s important for policymakers, scientists and the public to see and understand the full scope of landscape disruption that Appalachia is burdened with as a consequence of our persistent economic dependence on coal mining,” Thomas said of the findings.

These concerns are coupled with the fact that it now takes more work to get the same amount of coal. In the 1980s, it took disturbing about 110 square feet to get 2,200 pounds of coal. Now it takes roughly 330 square feet.

This has even more far-reaching effects when it comes to water quality throughout the Central Appalachian region, according to the researchers.

Andrew Pericak, a Duke University research analyst, said the research will help to further gauge the impact of mountaintop coal mining and surface mining throughout the decades and “enable a variety of new scientific research inquiries to better understand the environmental and human health impacts of mountaintop coal mining.”

“Researchers will be able to align historic data on water quality or species distribution, for instance, with this new understanding of exactly when and where mining occurred,” he said. “And I’m excited for future updates to these maps so as to facilitate up-to-date studies.”

But can this new research make an impact when it comes to environmental policy? In the context of today’s executive administration, Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson said it’s often hard to be optimistic.

“Although this research started years ago, it’s hard to look at it outside of the context of the Trump administration,” he said, citing recent rollbacks of federal environmental protections and comprehensive government research. “It’s our hope that this study will be at the root of other research that happens in the future, regardless of what comes out of this administration.”

While many long to bring coal mining jobs back to areas of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Southwest Virginia and parts of Tennessee, Wasson said he believes the region simply can not rely on coal to provide economic revitalization to the region.

“The fastest way to put thousands of unemployed Appalachian coal miners back to work is to invest in reclaiming abandoned mine lands, particularly in ways that lead directly to diverse economic development,” Wasson said Wednesday.

“This (research) is exactly the tool that is needed to understand where and when mining has occurred and to prioritize the cleanup of these dangerous and polluted sites.”

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