Coal Tattoo

“Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses.”


 Photo by Paul Corbit Brown

That quote above is the conclusion of a blockbuster study being published tomorrow by a group of the nation’s top scientists, detailing the incredibly damaging environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and the failed efforts at reclaiming mined land or mitigating the effects.

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings, the paper calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop removal mining permits unless new mining and reclamation techniques “can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems.”

According to the paper:

.. Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/VF practices are inadequate … Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.

A press release explained that:

In their paper, the authors outline severe environmental degradation taking place at mining sites and downstream. The practice destroys extensive tracts of deciduous forests and buries small streams that play essential roles in the overall health of entire watersheds. Waterborne contaminants enter streams that remain below valley fills and can be transported great distances into larger bodies of water.

The peer-reviewed paper, “Mountaintop Mining Consequences,” is being published in Science, which is considered one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Science is the academic journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has an estimated readership of more than a million people.The paper was authored by a dozen scientists from various fields — from biology and hydrology to forestry and ecology — including several members of the National Academy of Sciences. A summary of the paper is available here for free. The full thing is subscription only. Updated: Here’s a link to the full paper, available for free. Scroll down to where it says “link to article and supporting material.”

It is without a doubt the most significant paper on mountaintop removal to ever hit a scientific journal. It cites nearly three dozen previously published peer-reviewed papers, government studies and a first-ever detailed analysis of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Water quality data:

Despite much debate in the United States, surprisingly little attention has been given to the growing scientific evidence of the negative impacts of MTM/VF.

Our analysis of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address. Published studies also show a high potential for human health impacts.

The authors note that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act imposes requirements to minimize impacts on the land and on natural channels, such as requiring that water discharged from mines will not degrade stream water quality below established federal standards.

Yet mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biodiversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate that MTM/VF causes significant environmental damage despite regulatory requirements to minimize impacts.

Current mitigation strategies are meant to compensate for lost stream habitat and functions but do not; water-quality degradation caused by mining activities is neither prevented nor corrected during reclamation or mitigation.

Lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science said:

The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop removal is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.

Co-author Emily Bernhardt of  Duke University explained:

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.

Palmer and Bernhardt and some of the other authors are familiar to some Coal Tattoo readers, and certainly to the coal industry.  They’ve testified at Congress and in court cases about mountaintop removal’s impacts, sometimes serving as expert witnesses for citizen groups working to curb the practice. But, they told me today that this paper was not funded by any non-profit groups, and that it underwent the most rigorous peer review by Science that they had ever seen.

Other authors included William H. Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Keith Eshleman of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory, Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University, and Orie Loucks of Miami University in Oxford, OH.

UPDATED, with audio of today’s press conference about the study

Updated with this link to video of the press conference.

Among the specific findings:

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;

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 … 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 … Recovery of biodiversity in mining waste-impacted streams has not been documented, and SO4 pollution is known to persist long after mining ceases.

— Selenium:  A survey of 78 MTM/VF streams found that 73 had [Selenium] water concentrations greater than the 2.0p [micrograms per cubic liter] threshold for toxic bioaccumulation … In some freshwater food webs, Se has bioaccumulated to four times the toxic level; this can cause teratogenic deformities in larval fish, leave fish with Se concentrations above the threshold for reproductive failure, and expose birds to reproductive failure when they eat fish …

— 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 … 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.

— Mitigation effects: Many reclaimed areas show little or no growth of woody vegetation and minimal carbon storage even after 15 years … Mitigation plans generally propose creation of intermittently flowing streams off-site. 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.

Eshleman said:

Over the last 30 years, there has been a global increase in surface mining, and it is now the dominant driver of land-use change in the central Appalachian region. We now know that surface mining has extraordinary consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques.

During an interview this morning, the study authors noted the Obama administration and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have promised to have science guide their regulatory decisions. Palmer said:

It is our hope that this will provide the science that the administration needs.