Scientists Determine that Blowing Up Mountains is Bad for Mountains

By David A. Fahrenthold

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mountaintop coal mining -- in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off and stream valleys buried under tons of rubble -- is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits to do it, a group of scientists said in a paper released Thursday.

The group, headed by a University of Maryland researcher, said it performed the most comprehensive study to date of the controversial practice, also known as "mountaintop removal."

Afterward, they did something that scientists usually don't: step beyond data-gathering to take a political stand.

"The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped," said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study's lead author.

The group's paper, published in the journal Science, was released in the same week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- which has been scrutinizing these mines -- angered environmentalists by supporting a new mine permit. The EPA said the Hobet 45 mine, in West Virginia, had made changes that would eliminate nearly 50 percent of the environmental impacts and protect 460 union mining jobs.

Palmer said the group's work did not echo the idea implicit in this EPA decision: that there could be a "good" mountaintop mine, whose environmental consequences were acceptable.

"The science is clearly against that," she said. Later in the day, the EPA issued a statement saying that the report "underscores EPA's own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts" of these mines.

Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association disputed the report's conclusions.

"It's just flat-out wrong," Hamilton said, adding that the "so-called lead scientists have a history of activism against mining."

The scientists rejected that, saying that they brought no bias to the topic and that their conclusions had been rigorously reviewed by other researchers.

Hamilton said that after a mountaintop mine is finished, the damage to nearby streams is usually "very short-term" -- not lasting more than 18 months.

But in their report, the scientists said the damage could last hundreds or even thousands of years.

"It obliterates stream ecosystems," said Emily Bernhardt, a professor of biology at Duke University and a co-author of the study. She said 1,500 miles of streams had been destroyed so far. "They've been wiped from the landscape."

Mountaintop mining occurs mainly in West Virginia and Kentucky, though there also are mines in far-Southwest Virginia and in Tennessee. At these sites, peaks are sheared off with heavy machinery and explosives, exposing the coal seams inside. Excess rock is used to fill steep Appalachian valleys, some with streams at the bottom, to the brim.

That jumbled rock is the problem, the scientists said. When rainwater falls on the filled-in valley, it trickles through the rubble and picks up pollutants off rocks that came from deep underground. The water emerges, they said, imbued with pollutants such as metals and chemicals called sulfates, which can be toxic to the insects and fish in small Appalachian streams.

"To us, it's like smoking and cancer. It's just so clear-cut" that streams below mine sites are left damaged, Palmer said.

The study also linked mountaintop mining to threats to human health, citing potentially toxic dust in the air, well water contaminated with chemicals from mines and fish tainted with toxic metals.

Experts Urge Officials To End Mountaintop Mining (NPR)

A team of scientists says the environmental damage from mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia is so widespread, the mining technique should be stopped.

The scientific review of research on the effects of the practice, which dumps coarse rock down the mountainsides into nearby valleys, states that harmful chemicals such as sulfate and selenium are pervasive in streams below.

In the summer of 2007, photographer Daniel Shea set out to cover the coal industry of Appalachia. These are his photos, from NPR's Picture Show blog.

Mountaintop removal is a pretty efficient and cheap way to mine coal. But when the rock or "overburden" above coal seams is blasted away and pushed over the side of the mountain, says Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, "you expose material that, when it rains and water percolates through that, it dissolves a lot of chemicals, and those are very persistent in the streams below valley fill sites."

Cleanup Laws May Not Be Working

Federal and state laws require mining companies to clean up and restore mined areas. But Palmer and 11 other scientists who published their review in the journal Science say that's not working. "Even after a site has been reclaimed and attempts have been made to re-vegetate it," says Palmer, a biologist, "the streams that remain below that, that weren't filled, have high levels of all sorts of nasty things."

Things, she says, like selenium, which in high amounts can harm fish and other aquatic life; and sulfates, which alter the water chemistry. Palmer and her colleagues say many animals in these valley streams — from algae to fish and birds — could be seriously harmed.

So, they say, mountaintop mining should be stopped.

EPA Already Delaying Permits

In fact, the EPA has been holding up almost 80 permits for new mines to give them extra environmental scrutiny. And at a Senate hearing last year, EPA water expert John Randy Pomponio said the agency doesn't really know how bad the stream damage is.

"These little streams are like capillaries in your blood system," Pomponio said. "They're what travel through the landscape and capture the pollutants, clean those pollutants. And we frankly don't know where the tipping point is in losing one stream, five streams, or 18 streams in a particular watershed."

Pomponio told the Senate that mines in some valleys are so large now, their footprint covers as much as one-third of the watershed (a watershed is the whole area from which water flows into a valley). He also said the EPA has not done a good job of assessing the cumulative effect of all this mining.

While the EPA reviews the science, the mining industry in West Virginia is growing unhappy with the go-slow approach. Randy Huffman is secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Of the EPA, he says, "They just shut everything down, basically, and it kind of turned industry on its head."

Mountaintop removal coal mining approaches a home on the Mud River in Lincoln County, W.Va. The mine site is part of the Hobet 21 mine.

An Unfair Look At Pollutants?

Huffman says new requests for mining permits in West Virginia are getting closer inspection from his department, and some should go ahead while regulators are looking for solutions.

As for the pollutants the scientists listed, he says they've created a worst-case scenario.

"If you wanted to look at 30 years of coal mining in Appalachia and pick out the worst of everything that's ever happened and put it on two pages you can do that," says Huffman, "and it looks like that's what's been done."

Environmental and citizens groups in Appalachia have been suing for years to stop mountaintop mining, with mixed success. But Huffman says even if mountaintop mining were outlawed, that wouldn't keep other sources of mine waste out of valleys and streams. "We have valley fills associated with every type of mining, including underground mining," he says.

But according to the scientists who have studied the region's streams, mountaintop mining is responsible for the most of the damage.

Joellen Meadows Shiffman
Director of Executive & Board Services
American Rivers
1101 14th Street, NW
14th floor
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.347-7550 ex. 3019
Fax: 202.347.9240
[email protected]