Large mammals and other animals displaced from their home ranges may be forced to use adjacent areas already stocked to carrying capacity. This overcrowding usually results in degradation of remaining habitat, lowered carrying capacity, reduced reproductive success, increased interspecies and intraspecies competition, and potentially greater losses to wildlife populations than the number of originally displaced animals.Removal of soil and rock overburden covering the coal resource, if improperly done, causes burial and loss of top soil, exposes parent material, and creates vast infertile wastelands. Pit and spoil areas are not capable of providing food and cover for most species of wildlife. Without rehabilitation, these areas must go through a weathering period, which may take a few years or many decades, before vegetation is established and they become suitable habitat. With rehabilitation, impacts on some species are less severe. Humans cannot immediately restore natural biotic communities.
We can, however, assist nature through reclamation of land and rehabilitation efforts geared to wildlife needs. Rehabilitation not geared to the needs of wildlife species, or improper management of other land uses after reclamation, can preclude reestablishment of many members of the original fauna.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. In some circumstances, especially those involving disturbance of unconsolidated soils, approximately one acre foot of sediment may be produced annually for every 80 acres of disturbed land.The effects of sediment on aquatic wildlife vary with the species and amount of contamination. High sediment loads can kill fish directly, bury spawning beds, reduce light transmission, alter temperature gradients, fill in pools, spread stream flows over wider, shallower areas, and reduce production of aquatic organisms used as food by other species. These changes destroy the habitat of some valued species and may enhance habitat for less desirable species. Existing conditions are already marginal for some freshwater fish in the United States. Sedimentation of these waters can result in their elimination. The heaviest sediment pollution of a drainage normally comes within five to 25 years after mining. In some areas, unrevegetated spoil piles continue to erode even 50 to 65 years after mining.The presence of acid forming materials exposed as a result of surface mining can affect wildlife by eliminating habitat and by causing direct destruction of some species. Lesser concentrations can suppress productivity, growth rate, and reproduction of many aquatic species. Acids, dilute concentrations of heavy metals, and high alkalinity can cause severe wildlife damage in some areas. The duration of acidic waste pollution can be long term. Estimates of the time required to leach exposed acidic materials in the Eastern United States range from 800 to 3000 years.In some situations, surface mining may have beneficial impacts on some wildlife. Where large, continuous tracts of forest, bush land, sagebrush, or grasslands are broken up during mining, increased edges and openings are created.
Preferred food and cover plants can be established in these openings to benefit a wide variety of wildlife. Under certain conditions, creation of small lakes in the mined area may also be beneficial. These lakes and ponds may become important water sources for a variety of wildlife inhabiting adjacent areas. Many lakes formed in mine pits are initially of poor quality as aquatic habitat after mining, due to lack of structure, aquatic vegetation, and food species. They may require habitat enhancement and management to be of significant wildlife value.Surface mining operations and coal transportation facilities are fully dedicated to coal production for the life of a mine. Mining activities incorporating little or no planning to establish postmining land use objectives usually result in reclamation of disturbed lands to a land use condition not equal to the original use. Existing land uses such as livestock grazing, crop and timber production are temporarily eliminated from the mining area. High value, intensive land use areas like urban and transportation systems are not usually affected by mining operations.
If mineral values are sufficient, these improvements may be removed to an adjacent area.Surface mining operations have produced cliff-like highwalls as high as 200 feet in the United States. Such highwalls may be created at the end of a surface mining operation where stripping becomes uneconomic, or where a mine reaches the boundary of a current lease or mineral ownership. These highwalls are hazards to people, wildlife, and domestic livestock. They may impede normal wildlife migration routes. Steep slopes also merit special attention because of the significance of impacts associated with them when mined. While impacts from contour mining on steep slopes are of the same type as all mining, the severity of these impacts increase as the degree of slope increases. This is due to increased difficulties in dealing with problems of erosion and land stability on steeper slopes.Fires sometimes occur in coal beds underground. When coal beds are exposed, the fire risk is increased. Weathered coal can also increase ground temperatures if it is left on the surface. Almost all fires in solid coal are ignited by surface fires caused by people or lightning. Spontaneous combustion is caused when coal oxidizes and air flow is insufficient to dissipate heat, but this occurs only in stockpiles and waste piles, not in bedded coals underground. Where coal fires occur, there is attendant air pollution from emission of smoke and noxious fumes into the atmosphere. Coal seam fires may burn underground for decades, threatening destruction of forests, homes, schools, churches, roadways and other valuable infrastructure. Spontaneous combustion is common in coal stockpiles and refuse piles at mine sites.Adverse impacts on geological features of human interest may occur in a surface mine area. Geomorphic and geophysical features and outstanding scenic resources may be sacrificed by indiscriminate mining. Paleontological, cultural, and other historic values may be endangered due to disruptive activities of blasting, ripping, and excavating coal. Stripping of overburden eliminates and destroys all archeological and historic features unless they are removed beforehand. Extraction of coal by surface mining disrupts virtually all esthetic elements of the landscape, in some cases only temporarily. Alteration of land forms often imposes unfamiliar and discontinuous configurations. New linear patterns appear as material is extracted and waste piles are developed. Different colors and textures are exposed as vegetative cover is removed and overburden dumped to the side. Dust, vibration, and diesel exhaust odors are created, affecting sight, sound, and smell. Some members of local communities may find such impacts disturbing or unpleasant.Due to intensive mechanization, surface mines may require fewer workers than underground mines with equivalent production, although this does not appear to be true in Indonesia. The influence on human populations from surface mining is therefore not generally as significant as with underground mines. In low population areas, however, local populations cannot provide needed labor so there is migration to the area because new jobs are available at a mine. Unless adequate advance planning is done by local government and mine operators, new populations may cause overcrowded schools, hospitals and demands on public services that cannot easily be met. Some social instability may be created in nearby communities by surface coal mining.Many impacts can be minimized but may not be eliminated entirely by use of best mining practices either voluntarily or to comply with government regulatory programs. Financial incentives to minimize costs of production may minimize use of best mining practices in the absence of effective regulation. Some temporary destruction of the land surface is an environmental price we pay for utilization of coal resources. The scale of disturbance, its duration, and the quality of reclamation are largely determined by management of the operation during mining.