A 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 Permits” adds:
“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).
- 13. K. J. Hartman et al., Hydrobiologia 532, 91 (2005). [CrossRef] [Web of Science]
- 14. J. I. Sams, K. M. Beer, USGS Water Res. Report 99-4208 (2000); http://pa.water.usgs.gov/reports/wrir_99-4208.pdf.
- 15. N. F. Caraco, J. J. Cole, G. E. Likens, Nature 341, 316 (1989). [CrossRef]
- 16. S. B. Joye, J. T. Hollibaugh, Science 270, 623 (1995).[Abstract/Free Full Text]
- 17. M. E. van der Welle, J. G. Roelofs, L. P. Lamers, Sci. Total Environ. 406, 426 (2008). [CrossRef] [Medline]
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).
- 18. EPA, Stream Chemistry Report, part 2 (EPA Region 3, Philadelphia, PA, 2002); http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/pdf/appendices/d/stream-chemistry/MTMVFChemistryPart2.pdf.
- 19. A. D. Lemly, Selenium Assessment in Aquatic Ecosystems: A Guide for Hazard Evaluation and Water Quality Criteria (Springer, New York, 2002).
- 20. EPA, Mountaintop Mining/VF Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EPA Region 3, Philadelphia, PA, 2005); http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/index.htm.
- 21. J. M. Conley, D. H. Funk, D. B. Buchwalter, Environ. Sci. Technol. 43, 7952 (2009). [Medline]
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).
- 22. S. McAuley, M. D. Kozar, USGS Report 5059 (2006); http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2006/5059/pdf/sir2006-5059.pdf.
- 24. M. Hendryx, M. M. Ahern, Public Health Rep. 124, 541 (2009). [Web of Science] [Medline]
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).
- 26. J. A. Simmons et al., Ecol. Appl. 18, 104 (2008). [CrossRef]
- 28. B. Y. Amichev, A. J. Burger, J. A. Rodrigue, For. Ecol. Manage. 256, 1949 (2008). [CrossRef]
- 29. P. A. Townsend et al., Remote Sens. Environ. 113, 62 (2009). [CrossRef]
- 30. EPA and ACOE, Fed. Regist. 73, 10 (2008).
- 31. U.S. District Court, Civil Action No. 3:05-0784, transcript, vol. 3, pp. 34-45; http://palmerlab.umd.edu/MTM/US_District_Court_Civil_Action_Official_transcript_Volume_III.pdf.
It’s time to stop mountaintop removal.
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