Government intervention on fossil fuel pollution

Guest post by DV82XLHe is a Canadian chemist and materials scientist (and regular BNC commenter). An earlier relevant post by this author can be read here: An informed public is key to acceptance of nuclear energy.

I have been watching with some amusement the debate here at BNC surrounding the idea of a carbon price on CO2, which often seems to be a thinly veiled debate on climate forcing in general. Both sides have made both rational, and in my opinion, some irrational statements to support their stand. Lost in this, however, seems to be the realization that that using fossil-fuels has other impacts and costs that are not questioned as AGW is, and to my mind, make a case for the swift adoption of nuclear energy that is at least as strong. Leaving the CO2 issue aside, there is serious damage being done to the environment, and to human health, from the extraction and combustion of these fuels, topics that are being by-passed in this discussion.

For example, not only does the mining of coal lay waste to vast areas, rendering the land unfit for other uses, but also when coal surfaces are exposed and come in contact with water and air, sulfuric acid is formed. As water drains from the mine, the acid moves into the waterways, and as long as rain falls on the mine tailings the sulfuric acid production continues, whether the mine is still operating or not. This process is known as acid rock drainage (ARD) or acid mine drainage (AMD). If the coal is strip mined, the entire exposed seam leaches sulfuric acid, leaving the subsoil infertile on the surface and pollutes streams by acidifying and killing fish, plants, and aquatic animals which are sensitive to drastic pH shifts.

Strip mining, or surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation, destroys the genetic soil profile, displaces or destroys wildlife and habitat, degrades air quality, alters current land uses, and permanently changes the general topography of the area mined. The community of micro organisms and nutrient cycling processes are upset by movement, storage, and redistribution of soil. Generally, soil disturbance and associated compaction result in conditions conducive to erosion. Soil removal from the area to be surface mined alters or destroys many natural soil characteristics, reducing its productivity for agriculture and biodiversity.

Ground water supplies are adversely affected by surface mining. These impacts include drainage of usable water from shallow aquifers; lowering of water levels in adjacent areas and changes in flow directions within aquifers; contamination of usable aquifers below mining operations due to infiltration or percolation of poor quality mine water; and increased infiltration of precipitation. Where coal or carbonaceous shales are present, increased infiltration may result in increased runoff of poor quality water and erosion from spoil piles; recharge of poor quality water to shallow groundwater aquifers; or poor quality water flow to nearby streams. This may contaminate both ground water and nearby streams for long periods. Lakes formed in abandoned surface mining operations are more likely to be acid if there is coal or carbonaceous shale present in mine tailings, especially if these materials are near the surface and contain pyrites. Degradation of aquatic habitats has often been a major impact from surface mining and may be apparent to some degree many miles from a mining site. Sediment contamination of surface water is common with surface mining. Sediment yields may increase 1000 times over their former level as a direct result of strip mining.

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