Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Calculating the true cost of a ton of mountaintop coal

Date:
September 11, 2013
Source:
Duke University
Summary:
To meet current US coal demand through surface mining, an area of the Central Appalachians the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined every 81 days. A one-year supply of coal would require converting about 310 square miles of the region's mountains into surface mines, according to a new analysis.

To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area of the Central Appalachians the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined every 81 days.

Related Articles


That's about 68 square miles -- or roughly an area equal to 10 city blocks mined every hour.

A one-year supply of coal would require converting about 310 square miles of the region's mountains into surface mines, according to a new analysis by scientists at Duke University, Kent State University and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies.

Creating 310 square miles of mountaintop mine would pollute about 2,300 kilometers of Appalachian streams and cause the loss of carbon sequestration by trees and soils equal to the greenhouse gases produced in a year by 33,600 average U.S. single-family homes, the study found.

The study, published today in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE, is "the first to put an environmental price tag on mountaintop removal coal," said Brian D. Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State, who began the analysis as a postdoctoral research associate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment last year.

While many studies have documented the severity of surface mining's impacts on local ecosystems, few have quantified the region-wide extent of the damage and provided the metrics needed to weigh the environmental costs of mountaintop mining against its economic benefits, Lutz said.

"This is a critical shortcoming," Lutz said, "since even the most severe impacts may be tolerated if we believe they are sufficiently limited in extent."

To help fill the data gap, the study's authors used satellite images and historical county-by-county coal production data to measure the total area of land mined and coal removed in the Central Appalachian coalfields between 1985 and 2005.

They found that cumulative coal production during the 20-year period totaled 1.93 billion tons, or about two years' worth of current U.S. coal demand. To access the coal, nearly 2,000 square kilometers of land was mined -- an area similar in size to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The team calculated the average per-ton environmental costs of this activity by using previously reported assessments of the extent of stream impairment and loss of carbon sequestration potential associated with every hectare of land mined.

"Given 11,500 tons of coal was produced for every hectare of land disturbed, we estimate 0.25 centimeters of stream length was impaired and 193 grams of potential carbon sequestration was lost for every ton of coal extracted," said Emily S. Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

That doesn't sound like much until you put it in perspective, she stressed.

"Based on the average carbon sequestration potential of formerly forested mine sites that have been reclaimed into predominantly grassland ecosystems, we calculate it would take around 5,000 years for any given hectare of reclaimed mine land to capture the same amount of carbon that is released when the coal extracted from it is burned for energy," she said.

"Even on those rare former surface mines where forest regrowth is achieved, it would still take about 2,150 years for the carbon sequestration deficit to be erased," said Lutz, who earned his PhD from Duke in 2011.

"This analysis shows that the extent of environmental impacts of surface mining practices is staggering, particularly in terms of the relatively small amount of coal that is produced," said William H. Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. Schlesinger is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Biogeochemistry and former dean of Duke's Nicholas School.

"Tremendous environmental capital costs are being incurred for only modest energy gains," he said.

The new study is the latest in an ongoing effort by Duke-affiliated scientists to better understand the environmental and human health consequences of mountaintop mining. Funding for the initiative comes from the Foundation for the Carolinas.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Duke University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Brian D. Lutz, Emily S. Bernhardt, William H. Schlesinger. The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (9): e73203 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073203

Cite This Page:

Duke University. "Calculating the true cost of a ton of mountaintop coal." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130911184815.htm>.
Duke University. (2013, September 11). Calculating the true cost of a ton of mountaintop coal. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130911184815.htm
Duke University. "Calculating the true cost of a ton of mountaintop coal." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130911184815.htm (accessed November 23, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Earth & Climate News

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Ebola-Hit Sierra Leone's Late Cocoa Leaves Bitter Taste

Ebola-Hit Sierra Leone's Late Cocoa Leaves Bitter Taste

AFP (Nov. 23, 2014) The arable district of Kenema in Sierra Leone -- at the centre of the Ebola outbreak in May -- has been under quarantine for three months as the cocoa harvest comes in. Duration: 01:32 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Anglerfish Rarely Seen In Its Habitat Will Haunt You

Anglerfish Rarely Seen In Its Habitat Will Haunt You

Newsy (Nov. 22, 2014) For the first time Monterey Bay Aquarium recorded a video of the elusive, creepy and rarely seen anglerfish. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Buffalo Residents Digging Out, Helping out

Raw: Buffalo Residents Digging Out, Helping out

AP (Nov. 22, 2014) Hundreds of volunteers joined a 'shovel brigade' in Buffalo, New York on Saturday, as the city was living up to its nickname, "The City of Good Neighbors." Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Toyota's Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Green Car Soon Available in the US

Toyota's Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Green Car Soon Available in the US

AFP (Nov. 21, 2014) Toyota presented its hydrogen fuel-cell compact car called "Mirai" to US consumers at the Los Angeles auto show. The car should go on sale in 2015 for around $60.000. It combines stored hydrogen with oxygen to generate its own power. Duration: 01:18 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins