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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Longwall Mining

Air Date: Week of

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Longwall mining is a high tech coal extraction technique that accounts for almost half of U.S. underground coal production. But, in highly residential southwestern Pennsylvania, longwall mining is causing damage to property, people? health, and the environment. Ann Murray reports.


TOOMEY: One way to extract coal from the earth is a high-tech mining practice called longwall mining. Longwall mining operations take large blocks of coal from deep underground mines, and they account for nearly half of all U.S. underground coal production, mostly in the East and Midwest. In the past decade, the state of Pennsylvania revised its laws to allow longwall mining underneath private property. As Ann Murray reports, some residents say the practice is ruining their homes and businesses.


MURRAY: In a gravel lot beside the Greene County Humane Society, Jane Gapen crouches next to a row of plastic animal carriers. The shelter's longtime director is counting noses.


MURRAY: This morning, these dogs are heading to foster homes, but the fate of the Humane Society's remaining animals is far from certain. The shelter, the only one in this hilly mining community, is closing after a very turbulent year. Last January, RAG Emerald Resources extracted the coal buried 40 stories beneath the small red brick building. The shelter sank nearly two feet within a week. The cats and small dogs were moved to a house owned by RAG, but the big dogs had to stay. Gapen walks inside the kennel, ventilated by large electric fans, to point out the damage.

Photo: Courtesy of Jane GapenJane Gapen stands in front of walls
shored up with wooden planks at the
Humane Society of Greene County.
(Photo: Courtesy of Jane Gapen)

GAPEN: You can see the wet floor. This morning they disinfected this room, and, when they do, the water rushes back here. And so-

MURRAY: Because it's-

GAPEN: Because the building is tilted up. Over there, where you see all the wood, that's there because the wall was caving in. It's shoring the wall up.

MURRAY: The most recent crisis, says Gapen, has made it impossible to keep the shelter open.

GAPEN: The rats ate the inside of our furnaces down here, so we're unable to heat. It's just not conducive for adoptions, obviously. Folks don't come to adopt anymore.

MURRAY: Gapen acknowledges the Humane Society and RAG have come to an agreement. A new shelter will be built next spring, but she says she's far from satisfied.

GAPEN: By Pennsylvania law, they do have to replace, or give you the funds to replace, the building that they destroy. They destroyed also my business, my adoption, my abuse work, my education programs. We've lost hundreds of animals because of their work, and they can never do anything to replace that.

MURRAY: Surface damage has become a hot button issue for scores of people in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Just south of Pittsburgh, 40 percent of Greene County is above active longwall mines, as is 20 percent of neighboring Washington County. Together, the two counties produce the largest quantity of longwalled coal in the United States. Ten other states have longwall mines, mostly in sparsely populated rural areas, but states such as Ohio, West Virginia and Illinois are tackling some of the same issues as Pennsylvania.

The high extraction technique used by longwall operations allows them to compete with highly productive surface mines. Underground coal operators favor longwall mining. It's safer, more efficient and, so, more profitable than traditional deep mines, because fewer miners are needed and more coal is extracted.


MURRAY: At RAG's Emerald Mine, a high speed elevator takes miners deep underground.

BRYJA: We just dropped 650 feet from the surface to the Pittsburgh Number Eight Seam Coal level.

MURRAY: Jim Bryja is Emerald's mine manager. He's eager to show off the technology that keeps over 3,000 people employed by area mines.


MURRAY: Bryja walks through a passageway, to a loading area for rail mounted trams. The trams move workers and equipment through tunnels called entries.

BRYJA: This is the openings; this is three parallel entries that delineate our longwall block.


MURRAY: Bryja hops from the tram and approaches the brightly lit worksite. A two million dollar track-mounted shear travels back and forth across the width of a massive block of coal.

BRYJA: This is the actual coal cutting machine. As you can see, it's cutting a path of coal approximately six and a half feet high by three and a half feet deep.

MURRAY: The process looks a lot like meat being sliced in a deli. The shaved coal falls onto a conveyor. As the shearing machine advances, hydraulic ceiling supports lower and move with the shear. The overlying soil and rock shift and collapse safely behind the supports. This sequence happens over and over until all of the coal has been cut from the block. Blocks or panels can be as wide as three football fields and over two miles long. Because so much coal is removed, the surface above the panel will quickly sink, sometimes up to four or five feet. The mining industry calls this immediate surface drop "planned subsidence."

Tom Hoffman is spokesman for Consol Energy, the country's largest longwall operator. He says when it comes to mine subsidence, the best surprise is no surprise.

HOFFMAN: We know subsidence is going to occur right away, and the coal company that extracts that coal is responsible immediately to compensate for the damage that occurs.

MURRAY: A 1994 law, called Act 54, brought Pennsylvania in line with federal mining regulations. Act 54 requires coal companies to repair or pay for structural and water supply damage in mined areas. It also removed a state restriction on undermining houses built before 1966, making it legal to extract coal under all homes. Consol's Tom Hoffman applauds Pennsylvania's current deep mining law as both restorative and fair.

HOFFMAN: There's ample evidence out there to suggest that what's happening here is really a proper compromise. We don't divide this coal up at the end of the day and take it home in our lunch buckets. We send it by railroad car to power plants who make electricity that you and I use.

FILAPELLI: I don't know of any other industry that's allowed to come in and totally destroy your house and then think it's okay just because they pay you. I just don't think that an industry has a right to do that, an inherent right.

MURRAY: Mimi Filapelli runs the Tristate Citizens Mining Network, a grassroots educational group that supports communities impacted by mining. She believes the longwall industry benefits from Pennsylvania's deep mining law, and, for many residents whose homes have been damaged, compensation comes at a high price.

FILAPELLI: Going to lots of meetings and public hearings, we're always running into folks who've had a lot of stress. One of our member's husband has been having mini-strokes. We've had other people who have gotten to the point where they felt nearly suicidal over the stress that they've lived through.

MURRAY: Since 1984, 650 homes in Greene and Washington counties have been undermined. For various structural and geological reasons, some buildings have gone virtually unscathed, and others have been damaged or destroyed. Consol's Tom Hoffman insists the industry is sympathetic to the plight of property owners.

HOFFMAN: We try to take into account as we mine the understandable concerns and emotions that people have about this. But we're not really in a position to say, "But we're simply not going to extract our resources."

MURRAY: As longwall mines continue to extract coal from bigger and bigger panels, not only homes and buildings have been impacted. Reports of groundwater damage have increased. Wells have gone dry. Springs have relocated. And streams have drained. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service blames long wall mining for the loss of springs connected to 38 dry area streams. Agency biologist Ed Perry say subsidence may be affecting the local fish population.

PERRY: If the longwall mining subsides a stream, what happens is it interferes with the ability of the stream to move sediment through that reach. Instead of sediment being carried further downstream, down to the major rivers and ultimately out to the ocean, the sediment starts to collect in the stream channel, and only fish that can tolerate a lot of sediment do well in these conditions.

MURRAY: According to a recent state study, one in four families living above area mines is without permanent drinking water. Under state law, coal companies now have up to three years to restore or replace damaged water supplies.

LEVDANSKY: Clearly, when we passed the law seven, eight years ago, we did not anticipate all of the environmental and property owner impacts. It's time to amend Act 54. Again, not to ban the use of longwall mines, but to recognize that they have had impacts that nobody considered when we passed the law.

MURRAY: Representative Dave Levdansky is one of 29 state legislators who's co-sponsoring the Coal Community's Fairness Act, a package of amendments intended to make Pennsylvania's deep mining law more protective of water supplies, roads, groundwater and buildings. Although the proposed bill doesn't call for a ban on longwalling, Levdansky says it's going to be an uphill battle, against the mining union
and industry, to get the act into law.

LEVDANSKY: The UMWA, as well as the coal companies, are opposed to the legislation. Those are powerful political blocks, obviously. But we've got to start the debate somewhere.

MURRAY: Levdansky expects months of political sparring in this ongoing attempt to define the rights of coal companies and the people who live and work above their mines. For Living on Earth, I'm Ann Murray, in Greene County, Pennsylvania.




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