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Science bombshell explodes myth of clean coal: Mountaintop “mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses.”

By Joe Romm on January 7, 2010 at 5:23 pm

"Science bombshell explodes myth of clean coal: Mountaintop “mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses.”"


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MTR smallA stunning new article in the journal Science should once and for all kill the myth of “clean coal.”  The 11-author study, “Mountaintop Mining Consequences” (subs. req’d) on mountaintop mining with valley fills (MTM/VF) is an analysis of “current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV [West Virigina] streams.”

The study revealed “serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address” and concluded:

Considering environmental impacts of MTM/VF, in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians is compromised by mining activities, we conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems. Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.

This study is so important, such a fountain of useful information, that I’ll excerpt the key findings below at length with links to the original studies.  The photo by Paul Corbit Brown is an aerial view of a southern WV MTM/VF.

Ken Ward, Jr., the best WV journalist, has a good post on the study here.  He calls it “without a doubt the most significant paper on mountaintop removal to ever hit a scientific journal.”  He also has a must-hear audio of the authors’ press conference (click here).  One author says it is “the most rigorously peer-reviewed study” she’s ever done — and she’s written 150 studies.

This study comes on the heels of EPA approving one new mountaintop removal coal mine and finding a ‘path forward’ for a second, as Tree Hugger reported yesterday.  EPA needs to rethink is permitting process.  It’s long been unclear that coal with carbon capture and storage was going to be affordable or practical in the foreseeable future, if ever — see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“  Now we know it isn’t viable from an environmental or human health perspective.

The press release,Eminent Group of Scientists Call for Moratorium on Issuance of Mountaintop Mining Permitsadds:

“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” says lead author Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. “Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”

In mountaintop mining, upper elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, and explosives are used to break up rocks in order to access coal buried below. Much of this rock is pushed into adjacent valleys where it buries and obliterates streams. Mountaintop mining with valley fills (MTM/VF) is widespread throughout eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia….

Co-author Dr. Emily Bernhardt, of Duke University, explains that “The chemicals released into streams from valley fills contain a variety of ions and trace metals which are toxic or debilitating for many organisms, which explains why biodiversity is reduced below valley fills.” The authors provide evidence that mine reclamation and mitigation practices have not prevented the contaminants from moving into downstream waters.

Here are the key impacts from the study with links to the original research:

Burial of streams: Burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems that play critical roles in ecological processes such as nutrient cycling and production of organic matter for downstream food webs….  Many studies show that when more than 5 to 10% of a watershed’s area is affected by anthropogenic activities, stream biodiversity and water quality suffer (6, 7). Multiple watersheds in WV already have more than 10% of their total area disturbed by surface mining.

… in mined sites, removal of vegetation, alterations in topography, loss of topsoil, and soil compaction from use of heavy machinery reduce infiltration capacity and promote runoff by overland flow (8). This leads to greater storm runoff and increased frequency and magnitude of downstream flooding (9, 10). Water emerges from the base of valley fills containing a variety of solutes toxic or damaging to biota (11). Declines in stream biodiversity have been linked to the level of mining disturbance in WV watersheds (12).

  • 6. J. D. Allan, Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 35, 257 (2004). [CrossRef]
  • 7. This 5 to 10% issue is based on studies done on many nonmining types of land-use change. Thus far, EPA has not done mining-specific studies on this “threshold” issue (percentage of watershed mined versus impacts on streams) despite many calls for such data.
  • 8. T. L. Negley, K. N. Eshleman, Hydrol. Process. 20, 3467 (2006). [CrossRef]
  • 9. B. C. McCormick, K. N. Eshleman, J. L. Griffith, P. A. Townsend, Water Resour. Res. 45, W08401 (2009). [CrossRef]
  • 10. J. R. Ferrari, T. R. Lookingbill, B. McCormick, P. A. Townsend, K. N. Eshleman, Water Resour. Res. 45, W04407 (2009). [CrossRef]
  • 11. K. S. Paybins et al., USGS Circular 1204 (2000); http://pubs.water.usgs.gov/circ1204/.
  • 12. G. J. Pond, M. E. Passmore, F. A. Borsuk, L. Reynolds, C. J. Rose, J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 27, 717 (2008). [CrossRef]

Downstream water quality impacts: Below valley fills in the central Appalachians, streams are characterized by increases in pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids due to elevated concentrations of sulfate (SO4), calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate ions (13)….  We found that significant linear increases in the concentrations of metals, as well as decreases in multiple measures of biological health, were associated with increases in stream water SO4 in streams below mined sites (see the chart on page 149). Recovery of biodiversity in mining waste-impacted streams has not been documented, and SO4 pollution is known to persist long after mining ceases (14).

Conductivity, and concentrations of SO4 and other pollutants associated with mine runoff, can directly cause environmental degradation, including disruption of water and ion balance in aquatic biota (12). Elevated SO4 can exacerbate nutrient pollution of downstream rivers and reservoirs by increasing nitrogen and phosphorus availability through internal eutrophication (15, 16). Elevated SO4 can also increase microbial production of hydrogen sulfide, a toxin for many aquatic plants and organisms (17).

Selenium: A survey of 78 MTM/VF streams found that 73 had Se water concentrations greater than the 2.0 µg/liter threshold for toxic bioaccumulation (18)….  In some freshwater food webs, Se has bioaccumulated to four times the toxic level; this can cause teratogenic deformities in larval fish (fig. S2) (19), leave fish with Se concentrations above the threshold for reproductive failure (4 ppm), and expose birds to reproductive failure when they eat fish with Se >7 ppm (19, 20). Biota may be exposed to concentrations higher than in the water since many feed on streambed algae that can bioconcentrate Se as much as 800 to 2000 times that in water concentrations (21).

Potential for Human Health Impacts:  Even after mine-site reclamation (attempts to return a site to premined conditions), groundwater samples from domestic supply wells have higher levels of mine-derived chemical constituents than well water from unmined areas (22)…. Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease (24).

Mitigation Effects:  Many reclaimed areas show little or no regrowth of woody vegetation and minimal carbon (C) storage even after 15 years (26)….  In reclaimed forests, projected C sequestration after 60 years is only about 77% of that in undisturbed vegetation in the same region (28). Mined areas planted to grassland sequester much less. Since reclamation areas encompass >15% of the land surface in some regions (29), significant potential for terrestrial C storage is lost.

Mitigation plans generally propose creation of intermittently flowing streams on mining sites and enhancement of streams offsite. Stream creation typically involves building channels with morphologies similar to unaffected streams; however, because they are on or near valley fills, the surrounding topography, vegetation, soils, hydrology, and water chemistry are fundamentally altered from the premining state. U.S. rules have considered stream creation a valid form of mitigation while acknowledging the lack of science documenting its efficacy (30). Senior officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) have testified that they do not know of a successful stream creation project in conjunction with MTM/VF (31).

It’s time to stop mountaintop removal.

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32 Responses to Science bombshell explodes myth of clean coal: Mountaintop “mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses.”

  1. mike roddy says:

    Every mountaintop removal coal mine is an atrocity. I’m disappointed that EPA would whitewash the permits with a few disposal regs, especially since Massey will ignore them or bribe the judges anyway.

  2. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes, coal mining by MTR is as ugly as it gets — even before you burn the stuff. You can see the grey MTR scars in Kentucky and WV from Google Earth even from 500 km up!

    Coal is beautiful — let’s leave it in the ground, and retrain the miners to be clean energy miners.

  3. Leif says:

    Is this the point that Americans take a “hit” for our fellow citizens. We could not get a Carbon Tax passed for the war, Health Care for all, nothing for the well being of humanity! Let’s just bunch them all into a single revenue neutral carbon tax! What about it GOP? NO DEFICIT SPENDING. All paid in cash, up front! The highest users paying the most!!! Woops… How many GOP did I loose there????

  4. Steve says:

    Nuke ‘em

  5. Mike#22 says:

    West Virginian surface coal mines employeed just 6,886 people in 2006, while foreign owned companies employeed three time that many.

    Transitioning those workers into green tech manufacturing like heat pump hot water heaters, advanced lighting, wind turbines, etc, would replace coal fired electricity with end use efficiency. And the companies funding the shift would get carbon offsets.

    Time to pass some climate change legislation.

  6. espiritwater says:

    Just looking at the picture, you immediately feel a sense of loss and anger. Just the name of it– mountain top removal– indicates evil. Naturally negative consequences resulted from it; it was a negative action! If an Alien force had done this, we would all be horrified.

  7. espiritwater says:

    It hurts my heart to look at it! So sad! No wonder our civilzation is about to crash!@

  8. Leif says:

    Mike#22: That’s all! Hell, with a micro cent addition to the Carbon Tax we could give them a well earned retirement for life and send there kids to collage! And make money in clean up costs savings of one creek… And have money to start changing coal plants to bio-fuel assist, bio-char production, climatic assets!?
    I say, go for it!

  9. dhogaza says:

    New, much-needed ammo for lawsuits …

  10. Chris Dudley says:

    Tennessee is already attracting silicon refiners needed to build a solar industry by offering to cover their carbon trading costs. Other Appalachian coal states which are responsible for the large majority of coal mining deaths but not the majority of coal production should be aiming to end mining operations while replacing mining jobs with better paying renewable energy jobs. Federal help would be appropriate.

  11. Leif says:

    Chris: “Federal help would be appropriate.” Implies new taxes on individuals, and because every time in the past when you say “tax” it is the little guy that gets the smelly end of the stick. With a revenue neutral Carbon Tax Big users pay the most. Little users the least. What a novel idea! AND all for the good of HUMANITY!

    What’s not to like?

  12. Chris Dudley says:

    Leif (#11),

    Renewable energy is going to be a tremendous tax base in addition to undergirding improved economic growth. There is surly a formula that helps to boost adoption while encouraging manufacturing sites in coal mining towns that does not entail new income taxes. A four or five year tax deferral for matching lost mining employment might be all it takes. The money still comes in, just a little later.

    Carbon tax or cap and trade policies are stupid in that the carbon industry layoffs will be diffuse under those policies which does not allow targeting chunks of labor that are of useful size for manufacturing. So, shut down mines whole and have the factory open on the same day the mine closes. We can be smart about this. Appalachia is not good at mining coal so target it first.

  13. Leif says:

    Chris: Wholesale retirement, carbon tax supported, as well as sustainable social systems built into it as well would in effect be a “flat tax” which would appeal to the GOP, and would eliminate the nickel and dime and dollar tax burden on the rest of us. The biggest energy users and thus currently the biggest polluters pay the biggest share. The price of energy would be the price of social services. Cut down on the costs of social services the energy price comes down.. Solve an international dilemma diplomatically instead of war? The price of energy comes down. Have a sustainable energy producing source in your yard and you have a cash cow that takes no hay. You get to sell that energy at parity. No taxes or insurance to pay, you can afford a 20 hour work week. Unemployment is a thing of the past!. No more housing defaults. Free time to spend with your family… There would be no fighting for additional tax for schools, DONE. You get the picture?

  14. Chris Dudley says:

    Lief (#13),

    I’ve attended the folk festival in Glenville, West Virginia a couple of times over the years. It does not seem to me that the spirit of self-reliance exhibited there has much to do with wholesale retirement.

    But, I think that the basic mistake you are making is that you want a carbon tax to be a long term revenue source when, if it is successful, it should end up with zero revenue fairly quickly. This is a big objection to tax shifting as Gore proposed some years ago. If you replace the FICA tax with a carbon tax, what happens when we are no longer using fossil fuels? Social security has no funding and no one will want to go back to FICA.

    There were some concerns raised at Copenhagen that countries receiving assistance might not be able to absorb the contemplated quantities owing to inadequate institutions. An effective carbon tax is a little like that for the US. It becomes too large a portion of revenue. Some, like Hansen, attempt to get around this by rebating the tax, but that is not your approach and so you need to deal with the issue internally.

    Also, there is much to be said for being smart about the different fuels. You can’t give natural gas a pass for a few years with a carbon tax but it would be much better to cut coal use right away than to tax gas. And, we also do best for ourselves if the price of oil is brought down rather than up so direct rationing that accomplishes this would seem to be better than a tax in that case. Further, we already have a congressionally approved plan for rationing gasoline so we could do that right away without waiting for legislation.

    But, at the very least, being smart about replacing jobs would seem to be a very good idea.

  15. Leif says:

    Chris: If you recall I said that a carbon tax should be imposed but that the cost of “energy” should be pegged to the cost of social services. That way there is always a revenue stream. And always a value to the seller. Also a level playing field for production. World wide. Big money will have no incentive to move jobs to take advantage of local conditions.

  16. Gary Braasch says:

    Wendell Berry said it the most powerfully: “You cannot regulate an abomination.” ["SPEECH AGAINST THE STATE GOVERNMENT, FRANKFORT, 2/14/08" available as pdf searching at kentucky.sierraclub.org; sorry entire url does not show in Google search]

  17. Chris Dudley says:

    Leif (#15),

    Since you described you idea in terms of polluters paying, I understood differently. Don’t see how your idea is relevant to climate.

  18. Jem Cooper says:

    The International energy agency (an intergovernmental organisation) say that stabilising the climate by 2050 would cost at least 70% more without carbon capture http://www.iea.org/subjectqueries/ccs/what_is_ccs.asp

    Of course the mining industry must be regulated to minimise environmental damage but windmills, biofuel, hydro and nuclear also have their environmental problems and I want the lights to go on when I press the switch.

  19. Al Gore in his latest book. “Our Choice”, quotes the economist Herman Daly: ” There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the earth as if it were a business in liquidation.”
    Indeed. We can attribute this fundamental wrong to all kinds of actions and people; I believe most Americans have all been at fault at various times because we ignored the evils of coal. We were both ignorant of the pollution and destruction wrought by mining and burning coal and comforted by the electricity and heat supplied by the coal. There is no excuse now that we have been educated. Therefore, we must “throw the rascals out” of political office who are bribed to continue to support the status quo in the coal industry.
    How to do that? I wish I knew. Coal mining is but one of dozens of things that need fixing and only a new enlightened majority in Congress can do the fixing!

  20. Leif says:

    Chris:I admit that topics can get diffused from time to time. In my view thou, given that, (1.) CO2 and related green house gasses are a threat to humanity. (2.) serious problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that got us into the problem, (A. Einstein). The above is my humble attempt to try and look “out side the box.” Fundamentally I feel that the reason we are still in the “he said, she said” stage of problem obscuring instead of “balls to the wall” mitigation is corporate dedication to the economic status quo. Assuming that statement holds a bit of water, WHY are we still here? That question , IMO, boils down to the fact that Corporations are bound to the bottom line being “BLACK.” They have become the “Robot” with a license to kill as long as it is not TOO obvious about it. (think tobacco, Love Canal,…) The failure of society, thru the power of the political system, economic system, media system, education system, as well as the Judicial system, to address the long term consequences of this hubris has put us “here”! We have failed to factor quality of life, long term survivability, ecologic stability, the very future of humanity into the equation!

  21. rick Zawlocki says:

    Mountain top removal.

    The volcano eruption in Tambora, Indonesia, in 1815, killed around 92,000 people.

    We had mountain top removal from the beginning. Coal mining done by surface methods is less deadly than underground mining.

    3,000 workers were killed in Chinese coal mines during 2008
    We also are seeing wind tower deaths.

    The water pollution can also be bad. Not as bad as Boston water with sewage or medical waste.

    BOSTON, Sept. 5.–The investigation of the water supply from Sudbury River and Cochituate has been concluded by the Norfolk and Suffolk Medical Society, and their report shows a serious pollution of the supply by sewage

  22. Chris Dudley says:

    Leif (#20),

    The mindset that got us into this situation was lack of awareness that carbon dioxide was a problem. The different mindset that will get us out is understanding that it is a problem and cutting emissions. There are smart ways to do that and dumb ways to do that. We will probably use a combination. I find the different possibilities interesting to discuss but I’d like to keep it climate centric. At first you said carbon tax then you said energy tax for polluters and then the energy tax was not a carbon tax. OK, you are trying to work out your ideas, but I’m going to let you do that as homework. I feel pretty strongly that we need to take action now and revise as needed going forward. I’m not opposing Waxman-Markey, I’ll just push for better once it is law.

    I want to see all Appalachian coal mining ended and I think we should be doing it mine-by-mine based on safety and environmental criteria while replacing each job as we go. I don’t mind starting with shutting down all mountain top removal, revoking all current permits, though I think that killing 132 miners in West Virginia alone over the last 14 years urges shutting down underground mining just as quickly. Waxman-Markey does not do either so try try again….

  23. Leif says:

    Chris: Very few of us cone to this page with fully formed fleshed out concepts. This is a work in progress, by definition. If I have ventured too far out by your, and perhaps even my standards, I apologize.

    So, ploddy ploddy forth into the morass.

    Best wishes, Leif

  24. Chris says:

    Video of the news conference is also online at http://www.vimeo.com/8615795

  25. Leland Palmer says:

    All of the secondary effects are small potatoes compared to carbon pollution, Joe.

    It’s the carbon that’s the main problem. It’s starting to look like a big coal fired power plant is more dangerous than a nuclear weapon, to the future of the biosphere.

    We don’t allow nuclear weapons to be owned by individuals or corporations. Now that the dangers of carbon pollution are becoming apparent, why should we continue to allow private corporations or individuals to own or control coal fired power plants?

    We should nationalize the coal fired power plants, and forcibly convert them into BECCS (Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage) power plants.


    Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a greenhouse gas mitigation technology which produces negative carbon emissions by combining biomass use with carbon capture and storage.[1] It was pointed out in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a key technology for reaching low carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration targets.[2] The negative emissions that can be produced by BECCS has been estimated by the Royal Society to be equivalent to a 50 to 150 ppm decrease in global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

    We do have sufficient waste biomass to run these plants on, and the transportability of biomass can be improved by carbonizing it into charcoal or biochar in small satellite plants near the source.

    Coal log pipeline technology could be used to transport very large amounts of biochar long distances, and the water used in these pipelines could actually be cleaned by being exposed to the activated charcoal on the surface of the biochar logs.

    Most coal fired power plants are located on rivers and lakes for cooling water, and these waterways could become natural gravity assisted transport networks for biomass or biochar harvested from their watershed.

    Biomass plantations could be planted on the watershed directly upstream from the converted BECCS power plants, and floated downstream to the BECCS power plants on river barges. Some of these barges now carry a thousand tons or more of coal, and could easily be adapted to carry a thousand tons of charcoal pellets.

    There is room for the CO2 underground, in deep saline aquifers two kilometers or so below the surface, for example. There are potentially several trillin tons of storage capacity in deep saline aquifers, and there are additionally opportunities for in situ mineral carbonation of CO2 into carbonate in deep fractured basalt layers, in which the CO2 could be permanently bound as carbonates.

    The costs of CCS have been exaggerated, mostly by fossil fuel funded entities like McKinsey, which would rather not submit to government regulation. These studies do not take into account potential efficiency increases from better heat transfer of oxy-fuel combustion, for example. And cost is all about efficiency, or most of it is.

    Nor do current studies consider the efficiency gains of adding a high temperature topping cycle to converted BECCS power plants, which might be much easier for charcoal than it is for coal, because charcoal is much cleaner than coal, and should have fewer corrosion problems. The Clinton administration extensively studied such topping cycles, but these programs were canceled by the Bush administration. Such topping cycles can almost double the amount of electricity produced by the same amount of fuel, and this increased efficiency could potentially pay for the entire conversion from coal to BECCS.

  26. Leif says:

    Chris, #22″ “The mindset that got us into this situation was lack of awareness that carbon dioxide was a problem. The different mindset that will get us out is understanding that it is a problem and cutting emissions.”

    The problem with this statement is that “powers that be” confuse, distort and outright lie to perpetuate the status quo, and their profits. Vary large sums of money, collected from the public in the first place, are spent to deceive the very public they profit from. With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?

  27. espiritwater says:

    Chris, #22″ “The mindset that got us into this situation was lack of awareness that carbon dioxide was a problem. The different mindset that will get us out is understanding that it is a problem and cutting emissions.”

    The only way this can be accomplished, Chris, is having a leader who informs the public. The public has to become involved; everyone has to be on board. Obama showed a lot of promise before the election, was inspiring to the point of moving us to tears. Somehow, he “lost it”. He needs a good push to get him back on track. Our whole civilization is at stake!

  28. espiritwater says:

    This is REALLY frustrating! I’ve been attempting to post a comment 12 times!!!

    Perhaps the only way to get Obama “back on track” is for million-man marches to take place.

    Young people are being screwed out of a viable future by the fossil fuel industry. When they fully realize the situation, they’ll take to the streets. For some of us older people, it’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh This is bad ” But when young people realize what’s at stake, they’ll raise hell Like during the Vietnam War era, they’ll confront the establishment. Instead of, “ Stop the war ” they’ll be shouting, “Zero emissions now ” Let’s just hope they wake up in time!

  29. espiritwater says:


    [JR: You don't have to shout. You went into spam 13 times before. Not sure why. I retrieved one. Just send me an email in the future.]

  30. espiritwater says:

    Sorry. It was a lousy comment, anyhow. Should have been omitted.

  31. Leif says:

    espiritwater; I to was plagued with dropped attempts during Copenhagen. In the end I believe that it was primarily “operator error”. If one “pauses” momentarily on the “submit” button which I tended to do when I became frustrated… bingo, dropped posts. This is not to say that other factors might not be in play as well, traffic congestion, etc.? but I have had a lot more satisfaction of late. Be sure and “save” your comment before posting.

  32. Leif says:

    espiritwater: First attempt!