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BELOW THE SURFACE: The Cost of Mining


Powder River Basin Appalachia home
Mining employees

Mining provides jobs. But those jobs come with a cost to the environment and public health.

The mechanization of coal mining has resulted in a loss of mining jobs. The number of U.S. mining jobs fell from 170,000 in 1985 to fewer than 88,000 in 2009.

Mining pollutes the water, air and land. People living near coal mines suffer elevated risks of cancer and birth defects. In addition, mining can cause occupational health issues, such as black lung.


Powder River Basin Appalachia home


In Appalachia, coal is mined both underground and through a process called mountaintop removal, which involves blasting the top of a mountain to get to coal.

Coal mining in West Virginia has been associated with environmental problems and an elevated risk of cancer deaths. According to a 2011 Harvard study, the annual public-health cost of mining in Appalachia is almost $75 billion. Similarly, the environmental costs related to mine emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, is about $2 billion. The annual cost of land disturbance is more than $160 million.

Birth defects

People living near mountaintop-removal mines are more likely than those in other regions to suffer from birth defects, including problems in the circulatory, respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal and other systems.


Water pollution from mines has damaged Appalachian streams and rivers, harming habitats for fish, invertebrates and algae. Massey Energy and Arch Coal have been charged with Clean Water Act violations for releasing high levels of selenium, a mineral that in large quantities can be hazardous to health. The state of West Virginia has warned people not to eat too much fish contaminated by selenium from mountaintop-removal sites.

Black lung

Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung, is an occupational lung disease that results from long-term exposure to breathing dust from coal, graphite or man-made carbon over a long period of time.

More than 10,000 miners have died from black lung in the last 10 years, according to the Mining Safety and Health Administration.

From 1973 to 2009, there were 649,740 filings for black-lung claims. The Department of Labor has paid $44 billion in benefits for black-lung patients since 1970.


Subsidence, which is the collapse of land over former underground mining sites, has damaged homes and communities.

Mountaintop removal results in valleys being filled with the sediments and rock that are blasted off the mountain, leading to water pollution.

On July 21, 2011, EPA issued final guidance to protect Appalachian communities from mountaintop removal water pollution. Learn more.


Powder River Basin Appalachia home


Nearly all of the coal in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is extracted through surface mining. To get the coal, workers remove the soil and rock above it.

Water usage

Some cattle ranchers in Wyoming and Montana are worried about water allocation to coal mining. Water is used mainly for dust suppression in surface mining. Almost 2.4 billion gallons of water were used for dust suppression by Powder River Basin coal mining in 2009.

Ranchers’ concerns

Coal mining has caused dissolved solids and sulfates to leach into some aquifers. Sulfates are toxic to cattle, so high sulfate concentrations can harm cattle and cost ranchers money. To support their claims, ranchers are dependent on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s assessment of their water’s toxicity.

Orange clouds

In the Powder River Basin, nitrogen oxide emissions (see health implications) can be as high as 4,000 tons in one year, creating toxic “orange clouds.” Mining companies say these events are infrequent and hard to predict.


Powder River Basin includes 6.83 million acres, traditionally used for cattle ranching. Current leases for coal mining in Powder River Basin exceed 49,000 acres. Another 4.7 million acres, or 70 percent of the Powder River Basin, may become available for lease in the future.

Some mining in Montana is underground using a method called long-wall mining. Just as in Appalachia, this practice can result in subsidence when the land above a former mine collapses.


Reporting by Jeff Mittelstadt
Graphics and programming by Kristen Long
Research by Jeff Mittelstadt and Hely Olivares


Black lung
Distribution of part C TF black lung claims and disbursements, by state FY 2009.
Proposed rule for phase II of the U.S. government’s attempt to end black lung.

Orange clouds
Associated Press. Orange cloud from mine blast drifts near Gillette. KULR8. Jan. 7, 2008.
Whitney, Eric. Beware of orange clouds. High Country News. May 10, 1999.

Western land
Draft environmental impact statement for the Wright area coal lease applications. June, 2009. (PDF)
U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management. New report details coal resources on federal land in powder river basin. Oct. 20, 2009.
U.S. Departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture. Inventory of assessed federal coal resources and restrictions to their development. August, 2007. (PDF)

Sulfur toxicity and cattle
Cattle Today. Calf scours.
Lardy, Greg and Charles Stoltenow. Livestock and water. July, 1999.
Wagner, John J. Sulfur toxicity in feedlot cattle. ADM Alliance Nutrition. Colorado State University.

Birth defects
Ahern, Melissa M., Michael Hendryx, Jamison Conley, Evan Fedorko, Alan Ducatman and Keith J. Zullig. The association between mountaintop mining
   and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003.

Hitt, Nathaniel P. and Michael Hendryx. Ecological integrity of streams related to human cancer mortality rates. EcoHealth vol. 7, num. 1, 91-104.
Martin, Lawrence J., David L. Naftz, H.W. Lowham, and J.G. Rankl. Cumulative potential hydrologic impacts of surface coal mining in the eastern Powder
    River Structural Basin, northeastern Wyoming. U.S. Geological Survey. 1988.
Mavis, Jim. Water use in industries of the future: mining industry. CH2M Hill. July, 2003. (PDF)
Stoddard, J.L., A.T. Herlihy, B.H. Hill, R.M. Hughes, P.R. Kaufmann, D.J. Klemm, J.M. Lazorchak, F.H. McCormick, D.V. Peck, S.G. Paulsen, A.R. Olsen, D.P. Larsen, J. Van Sickle, T.R. Whittier. Mid-Atlantic integrated assessment (MAIA): state of the flowing waters report. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
   Office of Research and Development. February, 2006.

Water lawsuits
Sierra Club. Federal Judge Rules Coal Mine Operators Violating Clean Water and Mining Laws. April 1, 2011.

Mountaintop removal
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Final programmatic environmental impact statement on mountaintop mining/valley fills in Appalachia. 2005.
Palmer, M.A., E.S. Bernhardt, W.H. Schlesinger, K.N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M.S. Hendryx, A.D. Lemly, G.E. Likens, O.L. Loucks, M.E. Power,
   P.S. White and P.R. Wilcock. Mountaintop mining consequences. Science. Jan. 8, 2010.

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