After review, scientists urge end to mountaintop mining

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2010 

The consequences of this mining in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia are ""pervasive and irreversible," the article finds. Companies are required by law to take steps to reduce the damages, but their efforts don't compensate for lost streams nor do they prevent lasting water pollution, it says.

The article is a summary of recent scientific studies of the consequences of blasting the tops off mountains to obtain coal and dumping the excess rock into streams in valleys. The authors also studied new water-quality data from West Virginia streams and found that mining polluted them, reducing their biological health and diversity.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to this growing scientific evidence of the damages, they wrote, adding: "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science."

New permits shouldn't be granted, they argued, "unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems."

The Science article cites a number of potential health risks from removing mountaintops and filling in valleys, including contaminated well water, toxic dust and fish that are tainted with the chemical selenium. It also looked at environmental damage to the mining and fill areas and to streams below them, the reasons that forests are difficult to re-establish on mined areas and increased risks of downstream flooding.

"The reason we're willing to make a policy recommendation is that the evidence is so clear-cut," said Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, the lead author of the Science study and a specialist on the ecology of streams. Her co-authors were experts on chemistry, biology, engineering and health from Duke University, West Virginia University and other institutions.

Palmer said she started studying mountaintop mining's effects on streams in Appalachia, then sought help from the others to pull together scattered studies. Her family is from western North Carolina, and she spent much of her childhood there.

The assessment came days after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a permit under the Clean Water Act for Patriot Coal Corp.'s mountaintop Hobet 45 mine in West Virginia. The EPA reached a deal with Patriot to change the original plans. Instead of burying six miles of streams, the company will bury three. The EPA said that other changes would reduce stream contamination and protect public health.

At the same time, the agency acknowledged the environmental costs.

Mountaintop-removal mining has destroyed roughly 2,040 square miles of land in Appalachia and buried more than 2,000 miles of streams, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in an e-mail.

In a statement about the Science article, the EPA said: "This report underscores EPA's own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts that result from mountaintop mining operations. EPA's responsibility under the Clean Water Act is to ensure that mining activities do not degrade the quality of water used by communities, and we intend to ensure this requirement is met.

"EPA will continue to rely on the latest scientific information to inform our Clean Water Act review of mountaintop mining permits. We look forward to reviewing the details of this latest study and considering carefully its recommendations."

The EPA's approval of the Hobet 45 mine, announced Tuesday, was the first major mountaintop mining permit the agency has approved from a batch of 79 that it said raised concerns. The mine is expected to employ 460 unionized miners.

Environmental groups condemned the decision and said that even with the changes, the mine would destroy forests and streams.

The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act calls for balancing environmental protection with the nation's need for coal. Half the nation's electricity comes from burning coal. According to the Department of Energy, coal also contributes 36.5 percent of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas that's accumulating in the atmosphere.

Mountaintop mining has increased because it's good for coal companies' bottom line. In a recent commentary, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, 92, the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, noted that mountaintop removal allows companies to employ fewer miners to produce the same amount of coal.

The scientists' review of other scientific reports and their own new study of state-government data on streams in West Virginia found that chemicals released into the streams from mining dumps harm plants and animals.

Many of the streams had toxic concentrations of selenium. The chemical, which occurs naturally in coal, leaches from it and from the rocks that are dumped into the streams. Fish and birds with high levels of selenium have been found to have reproductive failures. State advisories warn people about eating too much selenium-contaminated fish.

The pollution remains long after the mining ends, the article says. Palmer said that no stream ever had been fully restored.

"The changes in water chemistry have never been shown to be fixable," she said in an interview. She and her co-authors wrote that companies are required to take steps to make up for lost stream habitat and functions but these steps don't work to protect or restore water quality.

The EPA has the authority to veto mining permits and it enforces rules that govern how mountaintop mining is conducted. In 2002, the agency changed a definition of valley fill and in 2008 it changed a rule about a buffer zone around streams. Both changes worked in favor of companies that wanted to fill streams with mining debris. Environmental groups are pressing the Obama administration to reverse the decisions.


Hear six of the scientists who write the article speak about it at a press conference

A guide for all ages by U.S. scientists: "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science"


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Check out McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington

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