Mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Surface coal mines in Appalachia have a problem. For years, they've been getting away with blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in streams. That mining waste releases toxic pollutants -- such as selenium -- into the streams. Now the companies are being held accountable for their pollution, including at older mines that are no longer active but still discharge selenium.
Stream polluted with runoff from a mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by Matt Wasson, courtesy of iLoveMountains.org
Across Appalachia, coal companies have tried to cut costs and access more coal by using a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal (sometimes referred to as MTR). These mines use high explosives to blow up the rock and other materials that overlay coal seams in the mountains and ridgelines of Appalachia. The rocks, which were under pressure in their original setting, expand when the mountain is cracked open. This means that there's even more material left after the blasting. The mining companies dispose of this mining waste by dumping it directly into the neighboring streams and valleys. Approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried with coal mining waste.
That's where the problem starts: All of that newly exposed and cracked-open rock is now in constant contact with the water in the streams. Over time, pollutants start to leach out of the rock and into the streams. These waste dumps, called valley fills, are left in place even after the mining's done. Some of the pollutants that leach out of the valley fills -- like selenium -- stick around in the environment.