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Mining casts a dark shadow and the new Hummer rolls into town.

Several tragic accidents recently brought to light the dangers of mining. What are the environmental impacts of mining, including their long-term effects on public and worker health?--Ed Kelley, Albuquerque, NM

Mining is an inherently nasty practice when looked at from environmental and health standpoints. For starters, large-scale excavation, which disrupts topsoil and displaces flora and fauna, is often needed. And the leftover waste or "runoff" often contains toxins like mercury and sodium cyanide that can contaminate water sources. The smelting that processes the ore can cause sulfurous dust clouds that lead to acid rain. Adding insult to injury, abandoned mines have often been used as unregulated landfills for hazardous wastes.

One of the best-known environmental mining disasters happened in Martin County, Kentucky in 2000, when 250 million gallons of toxic liquid waste burst through a coal waste dam. That accident killed 1.6 million fish and contaminated drinking water for 27,000 people, lack Spadaro, who oversees area enforcement for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), didn't put local residents at ease when he told reporters at the time that 200 other locations in the region could do the same at any moment.

The West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch works to prevent such disasters and has recently focused its efforts primarily on "mountaintop removal" mining operations, which blast off the tops of peaks to get at underlying coal deposits. The vegetation and forest loss that results from such operations increases flooding and landslides, and the waste byproducts poison local water sources.

The U.S. Congress has tried to clean up the mining industry through passage of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 and the Superfund law in 1986 (requiring cleanup of toxic sites, including mines, after they have been abandoned), but enforcement of these laws has been spotty at best.

Besides the considerable risk of accidents, mine workers are often exposed to unhealthy levels of irritants such as asbestos, uranium and even diesel exhaust from heavy machinery. Emphysema and cardiovascular problems are common among miners, and cancer rates are higher than average. CONTACT: Coal River Mountain Watch, (304)854-2182,; U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, (202)693-9400,

Is General Motors' new H3 Hummer any friendlier to the environment than earlier models?--Fred Poisson, Bridgton, Maine

Indeed, everything is relative. While the new Hummer H3 is smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient than its larger predecessors, it is far from an environmentally friendly vehicle. Not exactly fuel efficient, the H3 gets just 16 miles per gallon (mpg) in city driving and 20 on the highway.

According to the nonprofit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, General Motors (GM) developed the less-expensive Hummer H3--in the wake of shrinking sales of its larger H1 and H2 models--to compete with other midsized Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) in the mid-$30,000 price bracket, such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The move paid off, as GM turned a spiraling downward sales trend into a 200 percent overall sales boost for the Hummer brand.

As the biggest of SUVs, previous Hummer models raised hackles among environmentalists (as well as highway safety proponents) for their excessive, imposing size and weight as well as their fuel consumption and contribution of polluting emissions. The vehicle's debut prompted a number of anti-hummer websites and campaigns, including "Hummerdinger" from the Sierra Club and a "Hummer and Hummerer" ad parody circulated widely on the Internet. Probably the only way to really "green up" a Hummer would be to follow the lead of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drives a one-of-a-kind Hummer H2 modified to run on compressed hydrogen instead of gasoline. The prototype car's primary tailpipe emission is water vapor--but it's still a road hog.

Environmentalists in need of SUV functionality would do well to look into gasoline-electric hybrid versions of the Ford Escape or Toyota Highlander, both of which get about 33 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. CONTACT: Consumers Union "Greener Choices" website,; Hummerdinger,; "Hummer and Hummerer" ad parody,

Send your questions about environmental issues to EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, or e-mail

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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Previous Article:Drilling in the maternity ward.
Next Article:Soil's well that ends well.

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