Black Diamond

Coal. Old Norse Kol: Burning Ember. The history of this black rock is inseparable from the industrial revolution, the smelting of ores, further refined by the coking process and blast furnaces, providing steel for weapons and tools. The common technologies and worldwide dissemination of human artifacts with which we are familiar has largely been made possible by the extraction of certain sedimentary rocks which release the solar energy trapped in their molecules when heated to a certain temperature. Coupled with the invention of the steam engine, (which was originally employed moebius-like, to drain water from mines so as to be able to extract more coal and iron from deeper in the earth; these resources would undoubtedly be used to forge more parts to create new steam engines so as to extract more coal and iron so as to... The energy stored in coal was unleashed to power foundries and textile mills, railroads, great ships, the machinery of conquest and the general electrification of the night. Now entire empires depend on it.

According to a prominent Kentucky group promoting coal production, "All surface-mined land today is reclaimed equal to or better than it was prior to mining.ä When I read that, and thought back to the area we passed through on the Trace, I had to wonder what terrible catastrophe might have taken place there before they mined it. From where I observed, the angled heaps were reminiscent of the general form found in a typical land-fill dump, although these have the aesthetic advantage of being free of litter and benignly covered in vegetation. The article goes on to state that, "Coal mining creates valuable lands such as wildlife habitats, flat mountaintops, wet-lands, and industrial sites where only steep, unproductive hillsides had once existed." So there... As a matter of fact, strip mining is apparently such an obviously good thing for the environment, that one mining company recently requested to use the controversial 'mountaintop removal' mining method on a knob adjacent to Kentucky's highest point, the 4,139 foot Black Mountain, home to at least a dozen unique and endangered plants and animals.

Mountaintop removal involves blasting and digging through hundreds of feet of soil and rock at the summit to expose underlying layers of coal. The valleys below are filled with the excess dirt, creating a plateau of sorts. This sounded like such a bad idea to organized landlovers that the company withdrew its initial proposal and instead, began strip mining on the side of the mountain instead. There, is that better? The infamous method of surface or strip mining requires the removal of topsoil and rock from hillsides so that coal seams can be exposed and extracted. The process produces acidic runoff and fills streams with debris. Nearly two-thirds of today's coal production results from surface rather than underground mining. According to a conservative estimate by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, mining operations in Eastern Kentucky smothered more than 355 miles of stream from 1986 to 1995.

As we move into the third millenium, the coal industry has replaced workers with giant, earth-munching monsters, and the overlying rock and spoil material is dumped into the nearest hollow.  Although illegal, this method of disposing overburden is less expensive than returning it to the shaved hillsides and mountaintops. So despite rosey claims of reclamation and improvement, the damage is still going on. In Kentucky alone, a mind-boggling 151 square miles of mountaintops have been leveled in the past 20 years. Over forty mountaintop removal mines are still operating as of the current writing.

Longhunters like Boone originally came into this part of Kentucky in the late 1700's to hunt for extended periods before returning with their load of skins and pelts at the end of winter. Some returned with their familes to settle in the wider valleys where the farming was subsistence at best, but the bounty of the hunt so close to home convinced some to make the move. Of course, once they were settled there, they tried to make a life for themselves by developing the local resources. Unlike limestone, the sandstone underlaying most of eastern Kentucky is generally devoid of beneficial minerals. Due to generally poor soil content, along with undeveloped transportation, crops from the large gardens and small farms in this part of the state were not grown for marketing outside the neighborhood where they were grown. Pioneers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries found marketable products in the regional geology: salt, iron ore, oil, tar, and saltpeter from subsurface sources. Coal seemed like good news, especially after they had decimated the forests to the point where it was getting hard to procure charcoal.

Before 1800, iron furnaces operated near Owingsville birthplace of junkie General Hood. These furnaces employed coal in the production of implements, and, a little later, in weaponry for the war of 1812, but this was somewhat of an exception. Coal was utilized as a heating source and industrial fuel only gradually prior to the Civil War. Up until then, Kentuckians relied upon the great eastern forests for wood and charcoal. Coal became a major focus shortly before the Civil War. Railroads opened up the richest sections of what is known as Kentuckyâs Eastern Coal Field in the early nineteen hundreds.

Coal in Kentucky

1750 - Dr. Thomas Walker discovers and uses coal in Kentucky.
1850 - 150,000 tons production.
1879 - One million tons production.
1950 - 82.2 million tons production.
1990 - 179.4 million tons- record production
1995 - KY employs more coal miners than any other state in the U.S.
1997-  Re-introduction of Elk into 14 East Kentucky Counties on post-mined lands the  only large free-ranging Elk herd in the Eastern US

Kentucky has been one of the top three coal producers in the US for the last half century. $3.3 billion is brought into the state each year from coal sales to 30 other states and 14 foreign countries, notably, Taiwan.  Utilizing some of the largest industrial equipment ever made, including shovels capable of holding 290 metric tons, the number of mining employees in Kentucky has been reduced by more than half since 1981, while production has only increased slightly.  These counties were already poor when there were jobs at the mine; now unemployment here is among the highest in the nation. Due to mechanization, modern production rates have reached an average of 5.7 tons per miner per hour, or nearly 46 tons in a single 8-hour day.

The stateâs remaining 90.4  billion tons of coal represent 86% of the original resource. Deposits which can be mined profitably with existing technology are called reserves; 'resources' are estimates of the coal deposits in a region, regardless of whether these beds are commercially feasible. In 1996, estimates of total U.S. coal reserves were approximately 17.6 billion metric tons÷about 988 million metric tons of which are mined each year. We are told that the present rate of recovery and usage, U.S. coal reserves -- the largest in the world -- will last at least 250 years.

Eighty-six percent of the coal consumed in the United States is burned by electric power plants; two thirds of the nation's coal is moved by rail. Coal generates 95% of the power in Kentucky and 55% of the electricity in the US. It  accounts for some 95 percent of the US fossil energy reserves. Siltation and acid mine drainage, the presence of alkaline compounds, and heavy metals from the mine waste polluting the groundwater are all detrimental to streams, rivers, and lakes, endangering species on both land and water. But if this overall environmental degradation and extreme uglification caused by mining coal do not move you, hold on; there are other serious problems associated with the burning of it, notably, acid rain and global warming.

Acid Rain

    Acid rain is rain that is more acidic than normal. Caused by air pollution, acid rain damage involves weather, chemistry, soil, and the life cycles of plants and animals on land and in water. It is a form of precipitation (rain, snow, fog, sleet, or hail) containing high levels of sulfuric or nitric acids (pH below 5.6), produced when sulfur dioxide and various nitrogen oxides combine with atmospheric moisture. Acid rain can contaminate drinking water, damage vegetation and aquatic life, and erode buildings and  monuments. It has been an increasingly serious problem since the 1950s, particularly in the NE  U.S., Canada, and W. Europe, especially Scandinavia. Automobile exhausts and the  burning of high-sulfur industrial fuels are thought to be the main causes, but natural sources, such as volcanic gases and forest fires, may also be significant. The U.S. Clean Air Act  (1970) and its amendments have significantly reduced sulfur dioxide (but not nitrogen oxide)  emissions.

Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of acid rain. Cars, trucks, and airplanes use diesel and gasoline. Power plants and factories burn coal and oil to produce electricity.  Burning coal also produces tons of ash containing sulphur which must be disposed of, and often pollutes groundwater. The exhaust from burning coal is typically projected up a tall stack, pumping particles of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide high into the atmposphere. These particles can be blown by the wind for up to four days and are soluble in water vapor. That means they can fall as acid rain or snow, killing trees and plants, and leaching minerals out of  the soil.  The smoke and fumes from burning fossil fuels rise into the atmosphere.  Acid rain usually forms high in the clouds where sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water, oxygen, and oxidants. This forms a mild solution of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. Sunlight increases the rate of most of these reactions.
    Water in the atmosphere then condenses to form clouds. Clouds release the water back to the earth as rain, snow, or fog. When water droplets form and fall to the earth they pick up particles and chemicals that float in the air. Even clean, unpolluted air has some particles such as dust or pollen. Clean air also contains naturally occurring gases such as carbon dioxide. The interaction between the water droplets and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gives rain a pH of 5.6, making even clean rain slightly acidic. Other natural sources of acids and bases in the atmosphere may lower or raise the pH of unpolluted rain. However, when the sky contains pollutants, especially sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, rain water can become very acidic.

The chemical reactions that change air pollution to acid rain can take from several hours to several days. Years ago, when smokestacks were only a few stories high, such pollution usually stayed near the ground and settled on land nearby. This caused unhealthy conditions for plants and animals near the stacks. To reduce this pollution, the government passed a law permitting the construction of very tall smokestacks. It was thought that if the pollution were sent high into the atmosphere it would no longer be a problem. We now know that this is an illusion. Sending pollution high into the sky simply increases the time that the pollution stays in the air, increasing the chances that the particles will form acid rain. In addition, winds carry these pollutants hundreds of miles before they merge with water droplets to form acid rain. This is why acid rain can be a problem even in areas far from where the fuels are burned. Dry deposition is usually more abundant near cities and industrial areas where the pollutants are released.

Acid rain does not usually kill trees directly. Instead, it is more likely to weaken them by damaging their leaves, limiting the nutrients available to them, or exposing them to toxic substances slowly leached from the soil. Slightly acidic water dissolves nutrients and helpful minerals bound to particles of soil and then washes them away before the roots of trees and ground plants can uptake them. Stronger acidity causes the release of toxic substances such as aluminum into the soil. These are very harmful to trees and plants, even if contact is limited. Toxic substances also wash away in the runoff into streams, rivers, and lakes. Less of  these toxic substances are released when rainfall is cleaner. Forests in high mountain regions receive additional acid from the acidic clouds and fog that often surround them. These clouds and fog are often more acidic than rainfall. When leaves are frequently bathed in this acid fog, their protective waxy coating can wear away. Loss of the coating damages the leaves and creates brown spots. Damaged leaves cannot produce enough food energy for the tree to remain healthy. Once weak, they can be more easily attacked by diseases or insects that ultimately kill them. Weakened trees may also become injured more easily by cold weather.

The effects of acid rain are most clearly seen in the aquatic environments, such as streams, lakes, and marshes. This is where it ends up after falling on forests, fields, buildings, and roads as well as directly on aquatic habitats.  Most lakes and streams have a pH between 6 and 8, although some lakes are naturally acidic even without the effects of acid rain. Lakes and streams become acidic when the water and its surrounding soil cannot buffer the rain enough to neutralize it. In areas like the Northeastern United States where soil buffering is poor, some lakes now have a pH value of less than 5. Because of differences in emissions and wind patterns, levels of acid deposition are generally lower in the western United States than in the east.
Water moves through streams, lakes, oceans and every living plant and animal in the hydrologic cycle. In that cycle, water evaporates from the land and sea into the atmosphere. Acidic particles accumulate in lakes, killing fish and threatening birds and animals who depend on them for food. Generally, the young of most species are more sensitive than adults. Frogs may tolerate relatively high levels of acidity, but depending on insects like the mayfly, they may be affected if part of their food supply disappears. As lakes and streams become more acidic, the numbers and types of fish and other aquatic plants and animals that live in these waters decrease. Some are able to tolerate acidic waters. Others, however, are acid-sensitive and will be lost as the pH declines. Some acid lakes have no fish. At pH 5, most fish eggs cannot hatch. At lower pH levels, some adult fish die. Toxins like aluminum leaching from the soil may also kill fish. The plants and animals living within an ecosystem are highly interdependent. For example, fish eat other fish and also other plants and animals that live in the lake or  stream. If acid rain causes the loss of acid-sensitive plants and animals, fish that rely on these organisms for food will likely be affected.

Acid rain looks, feels, and tastes just like clean rain. The harm to people from acid rain is no more dangerous than walking or swimming in clean water. Air pollution that causes acid rain is more damaging to human health. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the major sources of acid rain, can irritate or even damage our lungs. The pollutants that cause acid rain can also reduce visibility -- limiting how far into the distance we can see. The primary pollutants associated with acid rain and poor visibility are human-made sulfur dioxide emissions. These emisisons form small sulfate particles, or aerosols, in the atmosphere. These aerosols reduce visibility by scattering light. Sulfate aerosols are the main cause of poor visibility in the eastern United States.
Nitrogen oxide emissions are also associated with the acid rain problem. They, too, can form aerosols in the atmosphere that significantly reduce visibility. Nitrate aerosols are often  the main cause for poor visibility in the western United States where sulfur dioxide emissions and humidity are lower than in the east.

Right now, burning fossil fuels is perhaps the most inexpensive ways to produce electrical and mechanical power. In the US, sulfur in coal makes up the greatest part of the sulfur dioxide that becomes acid rain.  There are several ways to reduce the amount of sulfur entering the air. One way is to wash  the sulfur out of the coal before it is burned. Another is to wash the sulfur out of the smoke before it goes up to the smokestacks. Scrubbers remove sulfur from the smoke by spraying a mixture of water and powdered limestone into the smokestack. The mixture traps the sulfur before it can escape into the air above. This is expensive and required in most new plants but many companies have tried to delay these effects by retrofitting old plants not subject to the new standards in order to maximize profits on their operations.

Until we reduce air pollution, acid rain will continue to be a problem. Activities to resolve this problem include cleaning up the smokestacks and exhaust pipes that pour pollutants into the air, finding alternative sources of energy, repairing the damage already done by acid  rain, and conserving our resources.


Carbonaceous matter in the lithosphere converts into fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. When these are burned for energy, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Two hundred years ago the mix of gases that made up the atmosphere was relatively constant. The Industrial Revolution introduced new alchemical processes, more extensive agriculture, all of which led to a rapid increase in global population and a buildup of the gases which enhance the greenhouse effect were pumped into the atmosphere.

Concentrations of CO2 - the most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities - are now almost 30% higher than before the wide scale burning of fossil fuels began. Scientists estimate that emissions resulting from buring a mere 7% of the existing stock of fossil fuels - will result in a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of CO2.  Energy burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories is responsible for about 80% of societyâs carbon dioxide emissions.

Mounting evidence: The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and floating ice in the Arctic Ocean have decreased. Over the past century sea level has risen 4-10 inches . Worldwide precipitation over land has increased by about one percent. The frequency of extreme rainfall events has increased throughout much of the US and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent. In 1990, it was noted that mountain glaciers are retreating almost everywhere in the world. The nine hottest years on record have all occurred since 1980, despite the 2-3 year cooling effect of the Pinatubo eruption in 1991. 1995 was the hotteset year on record. 1994 was the third or fourth hottest year on record. Ice cores in glaciers show that temperatures between 1937 and 1987 were higher than for any 50 year period for the last 12,000 years...

As the largest single emitter, US annually pumps 20 tons of CO2 per person into the atmosphere.  With less then 5% of the world's population, the US  is responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions. The entire developing world, consisting of more than 100 countries and representing almost 80% of the planet's human population, is responsible for approximately the same amount of CO2 emissions.

On average, each individual in the US consumes 3 times as much energy now as in 1850. This would be significant in itself, but we also have 11 times more individuals. So at a 5% growth rate, the coal supply will last a mere 86 years. Meanwhile, the deposition of C02 and methane (CH4) into the sheltering skies continues to exponentially increase, complicated even further by the continuing depletion of the world's CO2-absorbing forests. Temperature extremes, changes in precipitation patterns, increased intensity and frequency of wildfires, floods and storms, the proliferation of pests and diseases, and even increases in air pollution associated with the greenhouse gases will affect both forest survival and growth rates. And it is meaningless to analyze these habitats without considering the life of the species of plants and animals living there which cannot tolerate rapidly changing habitat conditions.

Drawing CO2 out of the air and into biomass is the only known practical way to remove large volumes of a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. A forest the size of Arizona would seriously offset the buildup of greenhouse gases. According to the World Resources Institute, 80% of the forests that originally covered the earth have been cleared, fragmented, or otherwise degraded. Those that remain are located mostly in the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, Canada, and Russia. These large stands of relatively undisturbed natural forest are invaluable because they sustain indigenous cultures, shelter global biodiversity, store carbon, and serve economic, recreational, spiritual and aesthetic needs.

39%  of the remaining frontier forest is threatened by logging, mining, and other large-scale development projects. The exact magnitude of these threats is unknown because current global forest monitoring efforts are limited to tracking forest loss rather than changes in forest use and condition. Such "post-mortem" deforestation data are often of limited value -- by the time an area has been cleared or degraded, it is usually too late to do anything about it.

As Patricia Glick wrote for the Sierra Club, "Forests play a critical role in the natural carbon cycle. As trees grow, they absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere. The carbon is released when trees die, are harvested, or are destroyed by fire. Curbing deforestation and encouraging replanting would help slow buildup of atmospheric CO2 and provide other environmental benefits, including the protection of watersheds, the provision of habitat for wildlife, and the preservation of areas for recreational use."

Turtle Hill Sangha © 2010