Coal Tattoo


Photo by Antrim Caskey

The impacts of mountaintop removal with valley fills are immense and irreversible.

Margaret Palmer, University of Maryland

Yesterday’s U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on mountaintop removal produced some major disclosures, and also the public release of two new independent reports that detail the growing scientific evidence about this practice’s environmental impacts.

I already discussed some of these findings in my post, Mountaintop removal: Jobs vs. Mayflied — NOT.  But let me emphasize part of what I covered there again … In his written testimony, Randy Pomponio of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explained that EPA has updated its study of how much forest is and will be lost to mountaintop removal:

EPA’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.

Pomponio continued:

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.

Yesterday’s hearing also featured testimony from University of Maryland ecologist Margaret A. Palmer. And submitted to the committee were two key reports: Mountaintop Mining Valley Fills and Aquatic Ecosystems: A Scientific White Paper on Impacts and Mitigation Approaches, by Palmer and Emily Bernhardt of Duke University, and Aquatic Hazard of Selenium Pollution From Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining by Dennis Lemly of Wake Forest University. The reports were not posted by Senate staffers on the committee Web site, but I’m making them available via Coal Tattoo.

By way of full disclosure, all three authors have worked for environmental groups who oppose mountaintop removal, and it’s my understanding that these reports were commissioned by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and the Sierra Club. But all three are respected scientists, and their work here draws on accepted and peer-reviewed science. These are major reports worth taking a look at.

I’ll try to briefly summarize …

Palmer and Bernhardt try to explain how mountaintop removal works in plain, but scientifically accurate, language:

The topography and the hydrology of mountain top mined watersheds are radically altered – valley contours are flattened and precipitation is routed through rock lined ditches on the surface or percolates through fill material. Even after reclamation, the vegetation is dramatically different. The alteration in topography persists forever and it will take centuries to reestablish the soils and forests that were historically present.

They continue:

The impacts of mountain top mining are more severe than other land use changes within these watersheds (e.g. clear cutting, residential development) because they are immense in scale and lead to irreversible alterations of watersheds. In fact, a 1999 study singles out mountaintop mining and valley fills in West Virginia and adjacent states as the greatest contributor to earth moving activity in the United States.

They note that numerous studies show when impacts to watershed exceed about 10 percent by area, biodiversity and water quality in their streams decline. Yet in West Virginia:

Some watersheds have more than 25 percent  of their area covered by surface mine permits.


This represents not only a significant loss of a treasured natural resource, but loss of ecosystems that are critical to the provision of water that is clean and abundant in supply to the larger downstream streams and rivers.

Among the water quality impacts, in addition to direct burial of streams by valley fills:

— Streams impacted by valley fills often have 30-40 fold increases in sulfate concentrations and sulfate concentrations in receiving waters continue to increase after mining activities end. Higher sulfate concentrations can lead to impacts on aquatic organisms and ecosystem functions.

— Ions of calcium, magnesium, and biocarbonate increase dramatically in the waters so that electrical conductivity levels and total suspended  solids in receiving streams below fills can be extremely high. Trace elements of iron, aluminum, zinc and selenium are often elevated as well.

— The cumulative effect of elevated levels of all these ions is highly correlated to biological impairment in streams below valley fills. Functionally important aquatic biota are sensitive to ionic stress which disrupts water balance and can cause stress or death.

Importantly, this study also explains that, “Typical mitigation projects do nothing to reverse the severe ecological consequences of the water quality impacts downstream from large-scale surface mining operations.”

It goes on:

Ephemeral, intermittent or perennial streams that are buried beneath valley fills represent a significant natural resource loss. As headwater streams they represent the points “where rivers are born” because their flow and associated biota, sediment, and dissolved constituents feed all downstream waters.  Any major changes affecting headwater tributaries or any activity that isolates or cuts off these tributaries from the lower part of the watershed will have profound consequences for hydrologic processes, sediment delivery, channel morphology, biogeochemistry, and stream ecology further downstream in the watershed which is why their loss due to mountain top mining is of such concern.

And, as Palmer told lawmakers during the hearing, scientists don’t believe that mine operators’ so-called mitigation efforts can replace these important stream functions:

Digging a ditch, adding rocks and diverting water to it does not make a living, functioning stream.

Then, there’s Lemly’s selenium report:

Data from other watersheds that are undergoing mountaintop removal mining paint a grim picture for aquatic life. Monitoring reports reveal that selenium releases are widespread and alarmingly high.

These selenium levels constitute a persistent toxic hazard to aquatic
resources. The weight of evidence is substantial and indisputable. EPA’s in-house evaluation, independent academic research, and private sector investigations all support the same conclusion: selenium pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining poses an imminent threat to aquatic life in central Appalachia.