Yet Another Study Digs Up the Dirt on “Clean Coal”

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downstream impacts of coal mines on water quality

If coal advocates want to prove that their favorite fuel can continue to dominate America’s energy future, they’re going to have to work a little harder. Researchers from Duke and Baylor universities have just announced a finding that polluted runoff from coal mines has degraded more than 22 percent of streams in a region of southern West Virgina, with substantial impacts often occurring miles downstream from the area of runoff. It’s just the latest piece of evidence that “clean coal” is exactly the oxymoron that it appears to be.

Coal Mines and Downstream Pollution

While the impact of runoff from both surface and underground coal mines has been well documented in nearby waterways, the effects farther downstream have not been as closely studied.

To help fill in the blanks, the Duke-Baylor team used NASA images to chart an area in southern West Virginia where 480 miles of streams had been buried during surface mining operations occurred between 1976 and 2005, covering about five percent of the land.

By overlaying that information with an archive of water samples collected during part of that same period, the team found that pollution from the mining operations could have an impact on 1,400 miles of streams in the region, extending far beyond the parts that were buried during valley fills.

All together, though the mining operations covered “only” five percent of the land in the area of study, they accounted for the degradation of 22 percent of the streams in the region, and possibly as much as 32 percent.

The study’s co-author and biogeochemist Emily S. Bernhardt of Duke explains:

“Our findings offer concrete evidence of the cumulative impacts surface mining is having on a regional scale.  The relationship is clear and direct: The more mining you have upstream, the higher the biological loss and salinity levels will be downstream, and the farther they will extend.”

Beginning of the End for Clean Coal

The study suggests that coal mining permits should assess the potential for downstream impacts far beyond the area of operation, which adds yet another layer of complication to a fuel under siege.

Coal’s recent troubles started with a bang in 2008, when a massive coal ash lagoon in Tennessee spilled more than 5 million cubic yards of slurry into a nearby river. Aside from the immediate devastation, Duke researchers found lingering health impacts from exposure to toxic metals and radioactivity in dust and sediment.

That episode blew the lid off of the nationwide issue of coal ash disposal, which involves a web of similar lagoons around the country, virtually all located near waterways.

On top of that, a recent study in Pennsylvania suggests that the surface impacts of underground mines on ponds, springs, and wells, as well as homes and other buildings, are far greater than previously acknowledged.

Underground mine fires such as the notorious, still-burning Centralia coal mine fire are another source of disruption above ground, as well as air quality impacts.

Recent studies from West Virginia University and Harvard University have also exposed the long term, negative impact of coal mining operations and coal burning power plants on local economies and public health.

Adding insult to injury, coal-fired power plants are falling into disfavor in the U.S., resulting in more pressure to export U.S. coal overseas, which in turn is causing a backlash among port communities that will have to deal with the impacts of increased coal shipping.

To cap it all off, coal-fired power plants are tied to the traditional model of centralized energy generation. The centralized model is badly out of date, as this week’s massive India power outage demonstrates.

We probably wouldn’t have any forests left in the U.S. today if coal hadn’t replaced firewood as the fuel of choice, but that was more than 100 years ago. The coal age is over and we have embarked on another history-making energy transition characterized by skipping the middleman (fossil fuels are stored solar power, after all), and going straight to renewable fuels that lend themselves to distributed energy generation, advanced energy storage and smart microgrids.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by (runoff from a reclaimed mine in Kentucky).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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