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Impacts of Coal Mining

Strip mining of coal has been increasing in the United States as demand for electricity has increased, and accounts for roughly half of our coal supply. US coal production is on the order of half a billion tons per year.

In cases where coal is close to the surface, strip mining is often preferable to mining interests over subsurface mining because its safer for workers, removes more of the coal, and is simply often the cheapest method.

The scale of surface mining is at a level where it can have significant negative impact on ecological systems, which include:

  1. Exposure of soils to weathering, compaction, erosion, and chemical alteration of nutrients, particularly nitrogen.
  2. Complete removal of original flora and fauna.
  3. Dramatic alteration of surface and groundwater systems.
  4. Creation of acidic or alkaline drainage
  5. Transport of toxic substances to the surface
  6. Dramatic alteration of the original landscape and geological profile.

Government Response

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) was passed in 1977. This established federal regulations for surface mining and required federal permits for mining on federal land. The act also created the Office of Surface Mining (under the Department of the Interior) which was charged with restoring abandoned surface mines and enforcing the SMCRA regulations.

Difficulties with Reclamation Efforts

In general, however, reclamation can be very difficult. This is because the original ecosystem removed by the strip mine represents a delicate balance of plants, animals, microbes, and soil nutrients, and soil structure resulting from eons of plant succession and nutrient fluxes in and out of the system. Re-establishing this balance in the short-term is at best a scientifically challenging endeavor. 

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