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Thursday, May 4, 2006 07:16 am

Earth Talk

From the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear “Earth Talk”: Several tragic accidents recently have brought to light the lethal dangers of mines to mine workers. What are the environmental issues with mining, including their long-term impact on both public and mine workers’ health? — Ed Kelley, Albuquerque, N.M.
Mining is an inherently nasty practice when looked at from either an environmental or health standpoint. For starters, large-scale excavation, which disrupts topsoil and displaces wild flora and fauna, is often needed to get at relatively small amounts of ore. And the leftover waste or “runoff” often contains toxins such as mercury and sodium cyanide that can contaminate local water sources. The smelting used to process the ore can cause sulfurous dust clouds that lead to acid rain. And adding insult to injury, abandoned mines are often later used as unregulated landfills for hazardous wastes. Examples of environmental mining disasters abound. One of the best known happened in Martin County, Ky., in 2000, when 250 million gallons of toxic-chemical- and metal-containing liquid waste burst through a coal-waste dam. That accident killed 1.6 million fish and contaminated drinking water for 27,000 people. Jack Spadaro, who oversees area enforcement for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, didn’t put local residents at ease when he told reporters at the time that the same thing could happen at 200 other locations in the region at any moment. The West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch works to prevent disasters of such magnitude by lobbying lawmakers to pass reforms, urging enforcement officials to increase their vigilance and educating the public about the risks in their own back yards. The nonprofit group focuses its efforts primarily on “mountaintop removal” mining operations, in which the tops are blasted off mountain peaks in an effort to get at underlying coal deposits. The vegetation and forest loss that results from such operations increases flooding and landslides, and the waste byproducts poison local water sources. Congress has tried to clean up the mining industry through passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and then the Superfund law in 1986 (requiring cleanup of toxic sites, including mines, after they have been abandoned), but enforcement of these laws has been spotty at best. Mining remains fundamentally dangerous to mine workers as well, separate from the risks of accidental death. Mineworkers are often exposed to unhealthy levels of irritants such as asbestos, uranium, and even diesel exhaust from heavy machinery. Emphysema and cardiovascular problems are common among miners, and cancer rates are higher than average as well. Despite highly publicized episodes such as the tragic explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia in January, MSHA claims that mining has gotten safer for workers in recent years. Although 22 workers lost their lives as a result of accidents at mines in the United States last year, they say, that figure represents a 50 percent reduction from a decade earlier. Nonetheless, the specter of death looms large over the mining industry, and many workers are scurrying to find jobs in other fields.
For more information: Coal River Mountain Watch, www.crmw.net; U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, www.msha.gov.
Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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