Acid mine drainage or AMD is the result of the chemical reaction that occurs when minerals containing iron and sulfur found in certain shales and coal seams combine with the oxygen in the air and water. Acidic water contains dissolved metals in toxic concentrations. An increase in acidity causes iron hydroxide to leave the water through precipitation leaving a yellow/red coating on the creek bed. As a result, the bottom dwelling life is literally suffocated and the entire food chain of the creek is often destroyed. Acid and toxic mine drainage also poisons surface and ground water and kills all stages of aquatic life. Livestock, wildlife and humans won’t drink it and it burns the skin and eyes of people who come in contact with it.
This kind of toxic pollution is a major threat to the watershed in many areas, including Rock and Hall Creeks in Bledsoe County. Mining in this area would be in the Sewanee Coal Seam, which contains high amounts of iron pyrite. When exposed to the air and water, iron pyrite creates acid and toxic drainage. Once this chemical reaction has begun, these poisonous materials are released into the ground and surface water for years. Mining in other sections of the Sewanee coal seam has produced so much AMD that some experts have referred to the seam as “a perpetual pollution machine”.
Water quality in the coal industry is regulated by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which requires a permit for all industries that discharge water into a stream or reservoir from a mining operation. Recent changes have weakened Federal mining laws so that companies no longer have to PREVENT AMD they only have to indicate that they can TREAT it by neutralizing the toxins to a “reasonable level” by the time water leaves the mine site. So most mining operations try to treat rather than prevent AMD. This is usually attempted by using natural buffering agents such as limestone or dolomite, which neutralizes the acid. The volume of rubble left over from a mining operation would need treatments so large that it is unclear whether they can be properly treated. The AMD produced by such a mining operation would require treatment that needs to be effective for CENTURIES.
SOCM members in Bledsoe County and in communities throughout the Cumberland Plateau where the toxic Sewanee coal seam is found have been fighting any mining in their area for more than 25 years. This report from SOCM member Wanda Hodge who lives in Bledsoe County describes her feelings toward the possibility of mining in the area.
“Our concern is that this area could be destroyed by coal mining. We don’t want our children in East Tennessee growing up thinking that steams should be orange. Acid mine drainage destroys aquatic life and turns streams orange.”
See the E3 page for more information about this issue.
UPDATE: A bill was been filed by Senator Andy Berke and Representative Mike McDonald in January 2012 that would prohibit surface mining in the Sewanee coal seam, the most toxic coal seam east of the Mississippi. There has never been a proven method of preventing acid mine drainage from the Sewanee coal seam. The bill did not make it out of subcommittee.
SOCM has historically fought surface mining in the Sewanee coal seam and is extremely proud of Senator Berke and Representative McDonald for recognizing the importance of protecting Tennessee waterways from the pollution that results from mining in the Sewanee.