Acid Mine Drainage: Little Understood, Majorly Lethal

Most of the effects of strip-mining are conspicuous. One only has to venture away from an interstate or tourist trap in the coal fields to witness unimaginable destruction (try exit 74 on I77. Take a left at the exit, then another left).  But arguably the most detrimental aspect of strip-mining is more insidious–its lethalness not readily apparent. I am talking about acid mine drainage; and in this entry I will explain what it is, what causes it, and what effects it has on the environment and the health of its victims.

Acid mine drainage behind my house in Logan, WV

Acid mine drainage behind my house in Logan, WV. AMD is only manifest here because colorful iron deposits have precipitated.

 

 

Simply put, acid mine drainage is the result of a chemical reaction between oxygen and pyrite or oxygen and aluminum bearing deposits. Strip-mining forces the reaction by blowing these underground substances to the surface and exposing them to oxygen. The ores are rife with hydrogen atoms, and oxygen molecules have a strong magnetic attraction with hydrogen. Thus, upon interaction, the oxygen “steals” the hydrogen and becomes water. The water, in turn, unleashes further chemical reactions upon the ores and the net result is a highly toxic mixture.

In a water molecule, the hydrogen atoms congretate to one side of the oxygen atom. Therefore, the hydrogen side has a (+) charge and the other side has a (-) charge. This polarity makes water the “universal solvent.” And when water disolves hydrogen rich ores, like pyrite, it becomes a solution with “extra” hydrogen atoms, which means it has a low pH value.  When there are surplus Hydrogen ions, the solution is said to be acidic. Because it is positively charged, acid can dissolve minerals by leaching away their negatively charged particles.

And herein lies the danger. The acid formed by the chemical reaction of water and pyrite or aluminum will dissolve surrounding heavy metals such as iron, arsenic, selenium, uranium, et al.  This toxic concoction eventually makes its way to streams or groundwater.

As you can imagine, the effects of acid mine drainage are drastic. Fresh water inhabitants are especially vulnerable because their cells can only work properly under normal pH conditions. In areas of strip-mining, may flies, a vital component of the ecosystem, have disappeared.

The dissolved components of the concoction have their own deadly effects. Alluminum collects on the gills of fish and suffocates them. Dissolved iron undergoes another chemical reaction and precipitates, leaving a layer of “liquid rust” scum on the water surface. The scum chokes out sunlight and inhibits photosynthesis of underwater plants, on which many organisms depend.

Of course, the damage multiplies when animals eat other animals or plants that have been contaminated. Inevitably, the poisons reach humans. The coal fields have some of the highest cancer rates in the country.

After a while, acid mine drainage will make an entire region uninhabitable.  Because of the drainage and other effects of MTR, property values plummet and people have little choice but to sell their homesteads to the coal company under market value. The homesteads are then razed with the mountains, and the gruesome reach of a strip-mine is expanded.

To learn more and how to help, visit www.crmw.net

Thanks for reading.

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One Response to “Acid Mine Drainage: Little Understood, Majorly Lethal”

  1. Awesome, very amazing topic. I will write about it too!!

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