Coal mining: what’s right and wrong

I never thought I’d do this, but I’m linking to Daily Kos. My dear friend Kyle sent me the link for this very interesting, though long, diary post about coal mining. The author spends a good deal of time establishing his bona fides before he launches into his discussion of the coal mining industry. He expresses some concern that he might lose his job for what he is says, but I think this is a little overwrought. I don’t think he wrote anything especially damning. But then again, maybe the bosses of coal mining are especially vindictive.

Everybody knows that strip mining is an ugly, polluting business. At least that’s the common wisdom of the day, but apparently this is incorrect. Today coal mining operations are very careful about repairing what they destroy:

Reclamation is meticulous, so well done I don’t even expect you to believe it. In a typical situation, the topsoil and a good part of the subsoil are removed from the area and stored before mining begins. Large surface rocks that are part of the natural landscape are also removed. A biological census determines the species mix for every acre of land to be mined. When mining is complete, the surface is returned to a condition as close as possible to the original contours. Streambeds are replaced layer by layer. Topsoil is restored. Those surface rocks are put back just where they were. A plant mix that hits the original species mix down to the most esoteric weed is put in place. In fact, the mining industry keeps several greenhouses in business to produce everything from twisted pinyon pine to herbs that are sacred to Hopi healers. The reclamation is, by far, the most expensive cost in surface mining. The people involved are almost to a person folks with degrees in wildlife biology, fisheries, agriculture, and related fields. These people think of themselves as environmentalists. They’re good at their work. The results are nothing less than amazing.

I can guarantee you, absolutely guarantee, that if I put you in a surface mining area of Wyoming or New Mexico or Arizona, you would not be able to tell me what land had been mined, and what land had not. I know you still don’t believe it. But I tried.

Frankly, I found this to be almost unbelievable. It’s hard for me to imagine that this actually happens. In my mind strip mining goes hand in hand with vast “otherworldly” deserts completely devoid of life, not completely restored forest vales.

Also the days of cave-ins, black lung, and other dangerous work conditions are gone. Now, coal mines don’t use dynamite, have ventilation systems that rival office buildings, and are much safer than many other jobs. Meanwhile, coal power plants have only gotten cleaner even as they increased output. The amount of pollutants coal plants pump into the air is a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1970’s.

But there is a catch to all of this, and this is what’s wrong with the coal mining industry:

The coal industry has done all those neat things. They’ve made it safer. Made it cleaner. Reclaimed the land. Why did they do it? Because we friggin’ made them do it, that’s why.

. . .

Every evidence is that they can mine coal safely, they can mine coal without destroying the land, and they can clean up emissions. They can make a profit at it, too, as the major companies are breaking all records while meeting these requirements.

But they won’t lift one damn finger unless we make them. Without regulation, they would backslide in a heartbeat, and without more regulation, they won’t take another step.

While this isn’t surprising to me in the least it is saddening. I believe our system of economics is the most viable system in use today, but one of the great costs of capitalism is the devaluation of morals and values. Of course many, perhaps most, businesses are ethical and moral in a general sense, but there are businesss that by their very nature make it easy to dispense with the ethics in favor of the profits. So even though I’m usually opposed to governmental regulation of the economy I do realize that because of human nature it is required in some situations. I think the regulation of coal mining provides a good example of governmental regulation gone right.

3 thoughts on “Coal mining: what’s right and wrong

  1. Pingback: The Smoking Room

  2. :jawdrop:

    Companies or business segments inspire regulation because of wrongdoing. the problem is one of balance. in order to be able to claim they’ve done something(anything) legislators overregulate, often making a bad situation worse.

    Companies attract regulation through their own actions, so it isn’t as if they are totally innocent victims of abusive regulatory action, but I do wonder if regulation ought to carry an expiration or reevaluation date. Then again, that also wouldn’t be effective, any attempt to reevaluate would be accompanied by think-of-the-children outcry.

  3. Daily Kos is like any other online community, or community in general. There are smart cookies and then there are drivel-spouters. The drivel is pretty easy to ignore :). Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater ;).

    I was espeically taken by this article because I think it is an example how we can use the resources we need for an industrious society and still take care of the environment. The one point I think you missed was the fact that some of these regulations have been rolled back by the Bush Administration – the mountain-top destruction / pollution of streams in West Virginia. I think his request for support against those policies was the source of concern for his job.

    Thanks for taking the time to read it! 🙂

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