What powers these mountains?

When we talk with community members about exurban growth and the environment, we generally think of the local impacts of roads, housing developments, strip malls, and floodplain development. But what about the less visible impacts of exurban growth and the effects that we don’t experience right here in Macon County? For this column, we want to use the energy that powers this community as a way of thinking through these long-distance connections.

Much of the electricity that powers the homes, businesses, and churches within the county is generated through coal extracted through mountaintop removal in West Virginia, Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia. Mountaintop removal involves using dynamite and heavy machinery to remove the top of mountains to reach the coal that lies deeper in the mountain. Excess rock and fill is pushed into adjacent valleys, burying streams. This method of extracting coal is controversial and there is a lot of public debate concerning the economic benefits of cheap energy versus the ecological and human health impacts of mountaintop removal.

In 2010, researchers published an article in Science that summarized the negative environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. They found that there is a 30-year increase in surface mining in the central Appalachians and that surface mining is the dominant form of land use change in the region. The researchers point out that not only does biodiversity suffer when mountaintops are removed and streams buried, but the ecological and hydrological function of mountains impacted by mountaintop removal is compromised as well. The compacted fill, loss of vegetation, removal of topsoil, and altered topography leads to greater storm runoff and increased flooding downstream. Water from streams impacted by mountaintop removal is often high in pH and sulfur and other harmful solutes such as selenium and aluminum, resulting in water that is too toxic for many stream biota.

Scientists found that the impacts from mountaintop removal have human health implications as well. Groundwater wells from mined areas have higher levels of mine-derived chemicals than wells from unmined areas. There are state advisories for consuming too much fish contaminated with high levels of selenium. Moreover, there are much higher levels of hazardous dust around mine sites and rates of chronic pulmonary disorders, hypertension, lung cancer, chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease, and mortality are higher around mined sites compared to unmined sites.

These issues may seem unrelated to the local environmental concerns in Macon County related to increasing exurban development. One answer to why that is relates to the fact that mountains in North Carolina have a different geologic origin and do not contain coal or other fossil fuels. However, because more development necessitates more electricity it is safe to say there are, and will continue to be, important connections between local energy consumers and these distant issues in central Appalachia.

Duke Energy, the largest electric power holding company in the United States and the primary power company in Macon County, uses coal extracted within the central Appalachians. The mountaintop removal, coal processing and use of Duke’s coal from their various operators has clear ramifications to Macon County beyond the way in which electricity users within this grid are connected to these other communities where coal removal occurs. As we discussed in our column from January of 2012 entitled “Acid Rain and Air Quality in the Appalachians,” parts of the southern Appalachians are still impacted by acid deposition, which is caused by burning fossil fuels, including coal, though it should be noted that sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants have substantially improved because of stricter air quality regulations and the use of cleaner technologies.

To map this is an interesting way to visualize the spatial connections we are discussing. The I Love Mountains website (http://ilovemountains. org/) which focuses largely on the problems of mountaintop removal offers an interesting opportunity to see local communities’ use of mountaintop removed coal through their “What’s My Connection to Mountaintop Removal?” portal. Simply enter a zip code and residents of Macon County can see their connection. We used the Franklin zip code 28734 to map what these connections look like.

According to I Love Mountains, all the electricity in Franklin is made available through Duke Energy, which uses coal from mountaintop removal mines. The closest power plant on Duke’s grid is connected to mountaintop removal at the W.S. Lee Mine in Anderson County, SC. Other coal-fired power plants on the Duke Power Company grid that are connected to mountaintop removal include the Goals Preparation Plant, which gets its coal via mountain top removal within West Virginia, and the Pioneer Preparation Plant in Virginia. The last plant connected to Franklin’s power grid that uses mountaintop-removed coal is the Toms Fork Loadout in West Virginia.

So, back to the tile of this essay, what powers these mountains? Oh, those mountains.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. June 7, 2013.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.