Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nothing is simple, is it?

For centuries, coal mining in mountainous terrain, such as Appalachia, has been done under ground. This underground mining has left a legacy of death, broken bodies, and disease from accidents and working conditions. Yet, there never has been a shortage of miners available to do the work and the nation has grown on the energy supplied by coal.

In about the 1930s in the U.S., surface mining started to become widespread. It was called "strip mining" in Appalachia, because it stripped away the soil overlying the coal (overburden) or "contour mining" because it followed the contour of a mountain, cutting away as much overburden as was economical. The health and safety impacts to workers were much less than with underground mining, but the adverse effects above-ground on vegetation, water, wildlife, and the health of nearby residents were greatly increased. States began to pass laws to regulate surface mining, but they largely were ineffective for multiple reasons, not the least of which concerned state revenues, votes, and general economic issues. Following extensive growth in surface mining, the U.S. Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 that sought to bring order to surface mining and reduce adverse effects, while allowing for the continued production of coal.

Among the provisions of SMCRA, as it became known, was a requirement that strip mines be reclaimed as mining progressed, with the surface being restored to "approximate original contour." That latter provision proved to be popular with environmental, recreation, and aesthetic interests. It was problematic for municipalities and developers, who were seeking more land on which homes and business could be built. Many sought waivers from the regulations so that individual projects could be carried out, which brings us to what this posting is all about.

Coming out of Pikeville, KY, on a trip to Gilbert, WV, a few years ago I saw a house for sale that appeared to be sitting on a strip bench (the floor of a strip mine after the coal has been removed). Behind it was a high wall, which is the feature the "approximate original contour" provision of SMCRA sought to eliminate. High walls are inherently unstable, subject to erosion, falling rocks, and even partial collapse. They're extremely dangerous places to be under, and yet here was a very nice new home being offered for sale in precisely that spot. Would a family with small children buy it?

The house seemed to be part of a development being built on an active strip mine. Construction appeared to be the "reclamation" required while the mine is being advanced around the mountain.

Some were already occupied and their Christmas decorations were going up. Further up the road, we saw that the local high school also was built on mined land.

We stayed in a hotel in Pikeville two nights on that trip and got to drive around the city some. I have to admit that suitable land on which to build was in short supply, and using mined land certainly looked like a plausible option. Yet, I wonder. Could the building of houses on a strip bench simply be an inexpensive way to avoid the costs of reclamation?

1 comment:

  1. The mountain top removal is even worse... that gash in the earth (in your photos) is irresponsible don't you think?