Led by International Coal Group’s Gene Kitts, some folks in the coal industry have tried to depict the Obama administration’s somewhat meager efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal as a case of putting mayflies ahead of jobs.
During today’s Senate hearing on mountaintop removal (it’s just starting now — watch the Web cast here), the Manchin administration throws in with that argument. In his prepared testimony, West Virginia Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman — in a broad defense of the coal industry — said his agency doesn’t see any other significant environmental impacts from mountaintop removal:
Without evidence of any significant impact on the rest of the ecosystem beyond the diminished numbers of certain genus of mayflies, the State cannot say that there has been a violation of its [water quality standards].
All this talk of mayflies stems from the fact that, in questioning several mountaintop removal permits, EPA officials cited this study by agency scientists,Â which does indeed talk about the impacts from mountaintop removal on mayfly populations downstream from mining operations and valley fills. But as I tried to explain in a story about this study more than a year ago, this isn’t just about mayflies — it’s about mayflies as one measure of overall stream health. We care about mayflies because they are an indicator species that helps us understand broader environmental impacts.
And in more prepared testimony for today’s hearing, a top EPA water quality official went into great detail to make this all clear, and tell lawmakers and the public about the environmental impacts that have his agency — as well as other scientists — concerned.
That EPA official was John “Randy” Pomponio, who is director of environmental assessment and innovation for EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia. He started off by reminding us of the direct impacts of streams buried by valley fills:
… Between 1992 and 2002, more than 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled at an average rate of 120 miles per year by ongoing surface mining practices.
In addition to those impacts:
Valley fills associated with surface coal mining increase the total loading of trace metals and toxic salts (sulfates, magnesium, bicarbonate, and additively–total dissolved solids) to downstream aquatic communities. These dissolved ions are not readily sequestered by the surrounding geology and may ultimately emanate from the fills for decades.
Yes, the impacts include killing off mayflies:
Certain macroinvertebrates are highly sensitive and thus disappear from the streams draining from the valley fills. This impairs the use of the streams and ultimately leads to listing of these streams as impaired water bodiesâ€ in EPAâ€™s water quality reports required under Section 305 (b) of the Clean Water Act.
An EPA scientific study released in July 2008 shows that more than 63 percent of the streams sampled below mountaintop coal mining operations exhibit such impairments.Â In some large watersheds, such as the Coal River in West Virginia, more than half of the streams are impaired.
And don’t forget about the selenium:
Concentrations of selenium, a heavy metal naturally found in rock, can also be elevated in streams draining valley fills. Often these concentrations result in exceedances of State and Federal water quality standards for aquatic life. Deformities in fish have been observed in reservoirs downstream of coal mining operations where selenium is a known pollutant. In peer reviewed scientific studies, high concentrations of selenium in fish tissue have been linked to physical deformities and reproductive failure.
Dissolved and particulate organic carbon fuels the food web of headwater streams and this nutrient energy cascades downstream. Healthy forest soils and streamside vegetation supply food webs with this high-quality energy source that further delivers high-quality food to downstream communities of other consumers, such as fish and humans. Mining operations and associated valley fills essentially rob downstream aquatic communities of this energy source, damaging the food webs that serve to purify freshwater for aquatic life and human consumption.
And, it’s not just streams … mountaintop removal and valley fills “can destroy forests, habitat and other important ecosystems” —
EPAâ€™s 2002 Landscape-Scale Cumulative Impact Study modeled terrestrial impacts based on past surface mine permit data. These data provide a retrospective examination of the impacts to forest that occurred over the 11-year period from 1992 to 2002. The Study estimates that 595 square miles (380,547 acres) of the forest environment (vegetation and soils) in the study area will be cleared due surface coal mining during this 11-year period. This represents 3.4 percent of the forest area that existed in 1992. Based on a 2003 analysis, the impacts to forest and forest soils have subsequently been projected over the next 10 years. For the entire 22-year period from 1992 to 2013, the estimated forest clearing in the study area would be 1,189 square miles (761,000 acres) or 6.8 percent of the forest that existed in 1992. Should these forest not be restored, invaluable water quality and ecological services will be lost.
Forest losses of this magnitude, although largely temporary, are not inconsequential.
In addition to the popularly appreciated wildlife, recreational, and timber resources associate with forests systems, many ecological services can be attributed to forest systems.
We are just beginning to understand and assign value to these ecological services.
I’ll have more later, including a complete report on a new paper submitted during the congressional hearing by two top scientists who are studying mountaintop removal …
updated, 4 p.m.: All of the testimony is online here.