Surface mining refers to a category of mining where soil and rock overlying the mineral deposit are removed. There are several types of surface mining, and strip mining counts as one of them.
In strip mining, a thin layer of material known as an overburden is removed so that access is made to the minerals buried underneath. This kind of mining is particularly useful when the minerals are located very close to the surface as it’s more feasible and much easier and quicker to remove the overburden in order to get them.
Usually, strip mining is employed in mining tar sand and coal. It’s a method referred to as open cast, open cut or stripping. First, the trees, shrubs and other structures in the area to be mined are removed – a task accomplished with heavy duty bulldozers. Holes are then drilled for the placement of explosives which are meant to loosen the overburden so that earthmoving equipment can easily remove it. Once the minerals are exposed, they are then extracted.
While this form of mining has advocates citing its efficiency, some have called out the process for being detrimental to human health and the environment.
In central Appalachia, more than 200,000 people have signed the historic CREDO Action and Earthjustice petitions which call on Congress to pass the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, as well as enact a moratorium on new mountaintop removal coal mining. This is in response to a study by a team of scientists from the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center of West Virginia University which revealed that “dust collected from MTR communities promotes lung cancer.”
One of the study’s authors is Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University Bloomington added: “Previous studies have shown that people who live in these communities have higher lung cancer rates not due just to smoking, but with this study we now have solid evidence that dust collected from residential areas near MTR sits cause cancerous changes to human lung cells.”
Here’s a clearer look at the arguments against and for strip mining:
List of Pros of Strip Mining
1. It is much more efficient compared to underground mining
Those who advocate for strip mining believe that the recovery rate of materials is higher using the method. It is estimated that about 80 to 90% of the material can be recovered compared to the 50% recovered using tunnel mining.
Strip mining is also considered a much quicker procedure as tunnels don’t need to be dug and supported. As a result, minerals don’t need to be lifted on long routes to get to the surface. In other words, retrieval and transport are so much more efficient using the strip mining technique.
2. It is lower in cost
The cost of strip mining is pretty low. Although powerful machines are used to uncover the overburden, this method of mining only touches the surface. As mentioned earlier, tunnels don’t need to be dug.
3. It is safer than underground mining
Given that strip mining just covers the surface, workers aren’t exposed to risks like the collapse of a tunnel – a risk that is inherent in underground mining. Also, companies are required to reclaim any land they use for strip mining. This simply means that they have to fill the removed areas with topsoil and replant them with vegetation.
List of Cons of Strip Mining
Strip mining is a controversial practice owing to the fact that it affects topography, vegetation and water resources. Although it is subject to state and federal reclamation requirements, the adequacy of such requirements is a frequent source of contention.
1. It is hazardous to human health
In the study by researchers from West Virginia University (which was mentioned above), surface mining is linked with cancer. But that study isn’t the only one to point out health-related issues stemming from this kind of mining. In an Al Jazeera America article, it is stated that the study “…follows two-dozen peer-reviewed health studies that have documented the high rates of birth defects, heart disease and cancer in communities that face the fallout of millions of pounds of mining explosives, silica dust and pulverized heavy metals in waterways.”
The United Mine Workers of America have also voiced dissent on the use of human sewage sludge to reclaim surface mining sites in Appalachia. The group launched their campaign back in 1999 after eight workers took ill after exposure to Class B sludge near their workplace.
2. It is harmful to the environment
In 2010, a study was published in the journal Science revealing that mountaintop mining has resulted in several environmental problems, and that mitigation practices have not been successfully addressed. For instance, permanent loss of ecosystems results from when valley fills frequently bury headwater streams. Also, several endangered species have been threatened and has resulted in loss of biodiversity because of the destruction of large portions of deciduous forests.
In an Al Jazeera article called Mountaintop removal mining is a crime against Appalachia, writer Jeff Biggers relates that locals have witnessed “the death of their landscape as a precursor to the death of their own communities.” Matoaka and Montcalm in Mercer County, West Virginia were once booming coal mining towns. They were covered in trees and local fauna. Now, they are barren and unrecognizable.
Although companies are required to reclaim the land they perform strip mining on, it’s not straight away where the ecosystems regain equilibrium. You don’t just remove a bunch of trees one day, plant new seeds in their stead and hope that tomorrow it will grow into a tall, majestic thing of nature. And that’s when things are done right. But what if the reclamation project was so shoddily done? That would cause more problems like making the area vulnerable to erosion and flooding. In other words: it puts communities at an even riskier situation.
That’s not all though. Nearby water sources can become contaminated due to the dumping of excavated material, as well as from the use of extraction solvents. Strip mining also releases toxins and dust in the air resulting in poorly controlled contamination.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.