Coal Mining

Hunter Valley, Australia Credit: Max Phillips

Hunter Valley, Australia. Credit: Max Phillips

Coal mining has taken a tremendous toll on human health and the environment. Vast tracts of forests, mountains and farmland have been cleared to make way for coal mines. Communities have been forcibly displaced and their lands destroyed.

Communities that live near mines suffer from air and water pollution. They face reduced life expectancies and increased rates of lung cancer and heart, respiratory and kidney disease. Pregnant women have a higher risk of having children of low birth weight. In the Appalachia region of the United States, entire mountains have been dug up for coal mining. An estimated 3800 kilometres of streams have been buried by mountaintop removal mining. The resulting toxins in drinking water have triggered thousands of premature deaths and increased the rate of birth defects by 26 percent.

Miners face great physical risk due to accidents, explosions and mine collapses. In China, roughly 4,000-6,000 workers die from underground mining accidents each year. Miners are also directly exposed to toxic fumes, coal dust and toxic metals, increasing their risk for fatal lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis.

The toll on the physical landscape is severe. One of the most serious impacts of coal mining is acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage contaminates ground and surface water with heavy metals and toxins exposed by mining. This destroys aquatic ecosystems and water supplies that communities depend on for drinking and agriculture.

During mining operations, enormous amounts of groundwater are drained from aquifers so mining companies can access coal seams – up to 10,000 litres per tonne of coal. A series of proposed mines in Australia’s Galilee Basin is projected to extract 1,343 gigalitres of water – over 2-1/2 times the amount of water in the Sydney Harbor. This extraction will drastically lower the water table, rendering local wells unusable and impacting nearby rivers. Open cut mines also result in massive erosion and sedimentation of streams, wetlands and rivers.

Today communities around the world – in countries as diverse as China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Australia, Colombia and South Africa – are rising up to oppose new coal mines and demand reparations and restoration for the impacts to their livelihoods and the natural environment.

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