Methane, a potent greenhouse gas trapped inside coal, can be released into the atmosphere when coal is mined. The 1993 President's Climate Change Action Plan encouraged the recovery of a possible 100 trillion cubic feet of this coal-bed methane for energy. This would reduce methane and carbon dioxide emissions overall, because burning methane produces less carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels. Scientists from the United States Geological Survey are studying how to extract coal-bed methane without harming the environment. Current difficulties include how to dispose of the water that permeates coal beds and must be pumped off before methane can be released, and how to prevent methane migration. Methane, possibly from coal-bed methane mining, has been discovered in groundwater in residential neighborhoods.
There are also many mines with successful reclamation plans. For example, the Ruby Hill Mine, which is an open pit gold mine in Eureka, Nevada, won a state award in 1999 for concurrent reclamation practices, such as using revegetation and employing mitigation measures to offset potential impacts to local wildlife.
The mining of asbestos, either as the primary mineral or included as an unwanted material while mining for the "target" mineral, is one of the more controversial issues facing the mining industry in the United States. Asbestos is the name given to a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals. Asbestos minerals have long, strong, flexible fibers that can be spun and woven and are heat-resistant. Because of these characteristics, asbestos materials became the most cost effective ones for use in such items as building materials (roof coatings and shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products) and friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts).
Unfortunately, it has been found that long-term, high-level exposure to asbestos can cause asbestosis and lung cancer. It was also determined that exposure to asbestos may cause mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. Workers can be exposed to asbestos during mining, milling, and handling of ores containing asbestos or during the manufacture, installation, repair, and removal of commercial products that contain asbestos. One of the more recent controversies involving asbestos is the exposure of workers and the local residents to asbestos found in vermiculite ore mined in Libby, Montana. The vermiculite ore was shipped nationwide for processing and was used for insulation, as a lightweight aggregate, in potting soils, and for agricultural applications. Mining of the Libby deposit ended around 1991 but elevated levels of asbestos-related disease have been found in the miners, millers, and the local population. Another major area of concern is naturally occurring asbestos found in rock outcrops in parks and residential areas. see also Clean WAter Act; Disasters: Environmental Mining Accidents; Mining Law of 1872; National Environmental Policy Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Smelting; Superfund.
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