CELDF supports communities facing industrial mining operations, which threaten the environmental, economic, and civil rights of communities. Below learn about the dangers of mining, and what you can do in your community.

The harms to people and nature from the coal mining industry are not new. Environmental trespasses, community health epidemics, harms to workers, and social upheaval are well documented today and in the often-tragic history of coal and other industrial mining operations.

Why Does it Matter?

Modern mining operations utilize heavy industrial equipment and put deep scars on the land and communities nearby.[1] Under The General mining Act of 1872, mining operations stake and develop hardrock mining claims on public lands with no royalty payment to the federal government.[1] Coal, however, requires an 8% royalty rate. The General Mining Act of 1872 is described by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as “an obscene example of corporate welfare.”[2]

The laws that regulate this industry, like many others, give industry rights that communities don’t have. In fact, when states do try to protect communities, corporations leverage the judiciary to strike them down. In 1922, the Supreme Court nullified a Pennsylvania state law requiring coal corporations to leave pillars of coal when mining so as to protect communities from collapse. The case of Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon established 5th amendment rights of corporations under the Takings Clause.[3]

Strip Mining

There are two types of mining operations; Strip mining and underground mining. Strip mining removes all of the soil and rock overlying a mineral deposit and destroys landscapes, wildlife habitats and loosens or destroys topsoil.[4] This is often how waterways are polluted. After heavy rains, loosened topsoil washes into streams, harming fish, smothering plant life, and altering river channels which leads to flooding.[4] This is also the reason for increased chemical contamination of groundwater near mining operations.[4]

Underground Mining

Underground mining, in which the overlying rock is left in place, is less destructive. However, it comes with a different set of risks. Mining collapses, coal fires and acid rain are all a concern in close proximity to a coal mining operation.[5][6][7][8] Underground coal mining also changes the water table, creating a funnel that drains water from an area much larger than the just the operation site.[4] This may be a concern for those depending well water.

A History of Risk

Dating back to the 1900’s, deaths related to coal mining accidents averaged close to 1,000 per year, although those numbers have dropped in recent years.[9] The most recent large scale accident occurred in 2010 in West Virginia, killing 29 miners and deeply affecting the surrounding community of Montcoal in Raleigh County.[10] In addition to accidents, mining also causes many health problems. Black lung disease – resulting from miners breathing in coal dust, carbon and pyrite – is estimated to kill 1,200 people in the U.S. each year.[4] Coal miners are also highly susceptible to Radon exposure, a radioactive gas known to cause lung cancer.[11] The risks of mining are not only absorbed by those who work in the industry, but also by surrounding communities and the environment.

A Heavy Social Cost

Coal mining operations have displaced entire communities, forcing residents to leave due to land appropriation for mine expansion, dangers of coal fires, mine collapses, and/or contaminated water.[4] Clean up from mining disasters are often paid for by the public, enabling corporations to internalize profits and externalize costs.[12] Clean up totals for two hazardous copper mines in New Mexico were estimated to be $800 million.[1] Additionally, higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease and kidney disease have been found among residents who live near coal mines.[13]

Crisis in the Community

Between 1979 and 1998 the entire community of Libby, Montana was exposed to high levels of tremolite asbestos, a byproduct of vermiculite mining. The results were devastating. The death rate from asbestosis was 63 times higher than expected, with many of the residents still being diagnosed today with asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma.[1] Lead poisoning has also been a cause of concern in recent years with instances in Missouri, Alaska, Idaho and East Helena.[1] Infants, children and pregnant mothers are also at risk with mining nearby. Exposures during pregnancy to arsenic, lead and mercury (components of many mining operations) can be linked directly to specific birth defects. Children up to age 12 are also especially vulnerable from exposure to toxic substances that occur near mining operations.[14]

Environmental Hazards

In addition to community upheaval, mining operations take a heavy toll on the environment. There are numerous cases of mining waste contaminating local drinking water supplies, as well as at least 10,000 miles of streams and rivers from mining operations in National Forests.[1 & 12] Unlike the early methods of mining, current operations rely heavily on the use of chemicals and heavy equipment in order to extract minerals from the ground. Cyanide, sulfuric acid and explosives are common methods of extraction, making the environment even more vulnerable to the risk of chemical accidents.[1]

Greenhouse Gas

All types of coal mining release methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas with 25 times the impact on climate change than carbon dioxide.[15] Underground mines account for around 90% of all methane emissions from the coal industry.[16] In addition to the threat methane poses to the atmosphere, it’s also highly explosive. Methane explosions in mining operations can cause loss of life and damage to property.

Acid Mine Drainage

Acid mine drainage is acidic run-off that dissolves copper, lead and mercury into ground and surface water.[17] Although this can occur naturally, mines exacerbate the problem.[17] Exposure to the byproducts of acid mine drainage can increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.[1] This toxic drainage can leak out of abandoned mines and contaminate groundwater, streams and soil.[4] Abandoned mines are also a hazard to communities.

A Collapsing Industry

The coal and mining industry is an industry in decline. As the world deals with the effects of climate change and communities pursue more sustainable sources of energy, many mining operations have ceased. This, combined with exhausting the land of its natural resources, has left many abandoned mines throughout America. There are currently 200,000 inactive and abandoned mines nationwide.[18] In Pennsylvania, more than 1,000,000 homes sit on top of abandoned mines. If those abandoned mines collapse — and they have — the impacts on life and property can be devastating. As well, many homeowners do not have adequate insurance to cover the monetary losses from these events.[19]

Your Community Can take action

It is increasingly clear to communities and local governments that regulating the mining industry does not stop the harms to people or local ecosystems. These communities are realizing that while regulations may increase the cost to mining corporations, and may slow down the rate of harms, it does not allow the people living in these communities to prohibit the harms. Instead, it places fundamental decision-making authority in the hands of people living far away from the community in which mining is occurring.

CELDF partners with communities and municipalities to develop local laws that stop the encroachment mining operations. We help communities to reframe the issue from a regulatory one, to one that challenges the corporate claim to constitutional “rights,” as well as state-level laws that claim preemptive authority and force mining into communities. By shifting focus to these rights-based ordinances, communities can reassert their right to local governance in the face of corporate rights and state preemption assaults.

Take action. Stand up to Mining.

If you or your community is threatened by mining, or trying to stop a mining operation from establishing itself in your community, contact CELDF and learn how to take action. You and your community have rights, and CELDF is here to help you fight for them.


[1] Boulanger, Aimee, and Alexandra Gorman. “Hardrock Mining: Risks to Community Health.” Bozeman, MT: Women’s Voices for the Earth (2004). http://www.earthworksaction.org/files/publications/MiningHealthReport_WVE.pdf?pubs/MiningHealthReport_WVE.pdf
[2] National Geographic http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/earth/inside-the-earth/hard-rock/#page=2
[3] Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393 (1922)
[4] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/coal/Mining-impacts/
[5] http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/illinois/2015/04/09/mine-collapse-damages-several-homes/25502605/
[6] http://triblive.com/neighborhoods/alleghenyneighborhoods/alleghenyneighborhoodsmore/8649342-74/field-mine-subsidence#axzz3hFie64cv
[7] Finkelman, Robert B. “Health impacts of coal: facts and fallacies.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36.1 (2007): 104.
[8] Stracher, Glenn B., and Tammy P. Taylor. “Coal Fires Burning out of Control around the World: Thermodynamic Recipe for Environmental Catastrophe.” International Journal of Coal Geology 59.1-2 (2004): 7-17. Web. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S00489697090118
[9] http://www.msha.gov/stats/centurystats/coalstats.asp
[10] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/08/usa-coal-mining-deaths/21461707/
[11] Finkelman, Robert B. “Health impacts of coal: facts and fallacies.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36.1 (2007): 106.
12. EPA http://www.epa.gov/aml/policy/hardrock.pdf page 2.
[13] Hendryx, Michael, and Melissa M. Ahern. “Relations Between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia.” American Journal of Public Health 98.4 (2008): 669–671. PMC. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376994/
[14] Johnnye Lewis, Melissa Gonzales, Courtney Burnette, Malcolm Benally, Paula Seanez, Christopher Shuey, Helen Nez, Christopher Nez & Seraphina Nez (2015) Environmental Exposures to Metals in Native Communities and Implications for Child Development: Basis for the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, Journal of Social Work in Disability & Rehabilitation, 14:3-4, 245-269, DOI: 10.1080/1536710X.2015.1068261. (pp. 17-18).
[15] http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html
[16] http://www.worldcoal.org/coal/coal-seam-methane/
[17] http://www.worldcoal.org/coal-the-environment/coal-mining-the-environment/
[18] http://www.epa.gov/aml/policy/hardrock.pdf
[19] http://www.duqlawblogs.org/energy/2015/02/18/mine-subsidence-in-pennsylvania/