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Investigation Exposes Environmental Consequences of Longwall Coal Mining

“Clean Coal” Legacy of Pollution Starts Even Before it’s Burned

WASHINGTON - Longwall mining is a highly productive underground process employed to quickly and cheaply extract coal, but the practice comes with a steep environmental price, as documented in a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, The Hidden Costs of “Clean Coal." As Congress and the incoming Obama administration contemplate alternatives to fossil fuels, the Center has turned a spotlight on a devastating mining method that most Americans outside northern Appalachia have never heard of. 

Longwall mines produced 176 million tons of coal in 2007 — 15 percent of total U.S. production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. An estimated 10 percent of all U.S. electricity now depends on coal from longwall mining, which has grown over the years in Appalachia and in the states of Illinois, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The Center’s newly released project, The Hidden Costs of “Clean Coal,” features a multimedia website with two magazine articles (“ The Big Seep” and “ Undermined”) a narrated video, a podcast, a document library, and a slideshow which offers a rare glimpse inside one of the country’s largest longwall mines.

“The environment and residents along the Appalachian corridor are suffering the consequences of longwall mining’s extraction methods,” said Center Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. “Weak government oversight has failed to account for the damage done and has left citizens virtually powerless to undo the harm.”

Concentrated primarily in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern Appalachia, longwall mining dramatically rearranges the earth’s landscape. The process involves hulking steel shearers that wind their way beneath landowners’ homes, slicing off entire coal seams hundreds of feet below ground and leaving in its wake caverns up to five feet tall. The consequent shock waves cause severe damage to structures, deplete water resources, and disrupt wildlife.


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The Center’s first story, “Undermined,” exposes the David-versus-Goliath battles that have defined southwestern Pennsylvania, where six of the country’s top 25 longwall mines snake below 138,743 acres of rural terrain — 15 percent of the region. The piece underscores the difficult and prolonged battle that landowners face, fighting not only “Big Coal,” with its legal tactics and political sway, but indifferent state officials. By September 2008, 1,819 Pennsylvania property owners had reported longwall damages since the state began documenting such complaints.

The second article, “The Big Seep,” examines longwall mining’s crippling environmental legacy: dried up streams. Scientists have found that the impact of longwall mining has permanently lowered the region’s water table, while farmers have been hit hard by disappearing agricultural land. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found in field investigations that out of 131 tributaries undermined by the longwall machine, more than half had either been drained or damned up.

While longwall mining continues unabated, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has failed to document the extensive structural damages to homes and vanishing water sources, the investigation found. While the DEP is required by law to assess the mining’s damages every five years, past agency studies have been criticized for their lack of data.

The Hidden Costs of “Clean Coal” is generously supported by a grant from The Heinz Endowments. In addition, organizational support for the Center is provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and other generous institutional and individual donors.


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The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing original, responsible investigative journalism on issues of public concern. The Center is non-partisan and non-advocacy. We are committed to transparent and comprehensive reporting both in the United States and around the world.

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