New study confirms long-term water quality damage from mountaintop removal coal mining

December 12, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Photo of Hobet 21 mountaintop removal mining complex, by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

A major new study out today in one of the most respected scientific journals around confirms the pervasive and irreversible impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining here in Appalachia. The study is called Cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining on an Appalachian watershed, and it appears online today in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The conclusion by Duke University researcher Ty Lindberg and colleagues, including Emily Bernhardt:

Our results demonstrate the cumulative impact of multiple mines within a single catchment and provide evidence that mines reclaimed nearly two decades ago continue to contribute significantly to water quality degradation within this watershed.

As explained in a Duke news release:

To assess the cumulative impact of the more than 100 permitted discharge outlets draining approximately 28 square kilometers of active and reclaimed mountaintop coal mines in the Upper Mud watershed, the Duke researchers collected 152 sets of samples from 23 sites – including two sites upstream of any active or reclaimed surface mines – between May and December 2010. They sampled for electrical conductivity, a measure of salinity and for concentrations of major ions and trace elements derived from coal or its matrix rock.

The Upper Mud flows through sparsely populated sections of Boone and Lincoln counties in southern West Virginia as a headwater stream until reaching its impoundment in the Mud River reservoir 25 kilometers downstream. For about 10 kilometers, the river passes through the Hobet 21 surface mining complex, which has been active since the 1970s and is among the largest in the Appalachian coalfields region.

Here’s a figure they used in the paper:

Map of study area depicting Upper Mud River and associated tributaries with aerial photo on right. Sampling sites consisted of 15 mainstem (circles)
and eight named tributary locations (triangles). Sites 1 and 2 were located upstream of current and historic MTM activity. The remaining sites were chosen so as to bracket each confluence of the Upper Mud River and an MTM-affected tributary. Marker color denotes median conductivity level in mainstem during survey (green <300, orange 301 to 500, red 501 to 1,000, and dark red >1;000 μS cm−1). Brown shaded areas reflect surface mining with darker area representing reclaimed mines. Aerial photo on right shows location of 105 active surface-mining-related outlets within the watershed that are regulated through eight NPDES permits. Inset of US mid-Atlantic states shows Appalachian coalfield region as gray shaded area with relative location of study site in red (not to scale).
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Their findings:

All conductivity measurements taken downstream of mine discharge outlets exceeded levels known to be harmful to aquatic life, said Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology. At the two sampling sites upstream of any mines, conductivity levels were within an acceptable range. Concentrations of selenium, a known fish toxin, followed a similar trend, Di Giulio said. The researchers also observed deformities typical of selenium exposure in fish collected from downstream waters.

Co-author Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, said:

As eight separate mining-impacted tributaries flowed into the Upper Mud, conductivity and concentrations of selenium, sulfate, magnesium and other inorganic solutes increased proportionately. Nearly 90 percent of the variation in trace elements and salinity could be explained by the amount of upstream surface mining.

According to the news release:

The Duke team selected the Upper Mud watershed for their field survey because water-quality impacts from other potential sources are largely absent. Historically, surface rather than underground mining has been the dominant form of coal extraction in the Upper Mud’s river basin, and there are very few people now living within the Hobet mine’s permitted boundary. This helped to minimize other factors that might account for changes in water quality.

Emily Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry, said:

This is a remarkably clean dataset and that’s why it’s so powerful. We see these incredibly strong patterns, which previously have not been well established.

Past studies have shown that individual mines profoundly impact stream water quality, biological community structure and ecosystem function immediately downstream of valley fills, but empirical data on the cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations on larger downstream rivers has been lacking, she said, adding:

Individual permitting decisions are typically made without consideration of the extent of historic mining impacts already occurring within a watershed. Our survey helps fill that gap.

78 Responses to “New study confirms long-term water quality damage from mountaintop removal coal mining”

  1. Matt Wasson says:

    vnxq,

    Since Soyedina is doing such a good job of keeping the discussion about the science real, and Ken is keeping the discussion about implications for the industry real, I just want to address your argument that:

    “the rise in coal jobs is due to the recent market dynamics (Queensland flooding, unbridled growth in China & India, the EU’s move away from nuclear and domestic coal production, etc.)”

    Here’s the problem: Appalachian coal production this year is pretty much what it was last year, which was lower than the year before, which was way lower than the year before that. There’s no question that the floods and port issues in Australia and demand from Asia have propped up production in the face of tanking domestic demand, but your argument seems to imply coal production has increased along with jobs. It’s hasn’t.

    We can all agree that there are more things influencing Appalachian coal production trends than EPA’s actions, but the fact remains that it is demand for coal, not permits, that is the limiting factor. Because of that – and the fact that there is more than enough unused capacity at Appalachian underground mines to take up the market share of the handful of surface mine that can’t get permits – then the small drop in surface mine production resulting from EPA’s decisions results in more jobs, not fewer. And there’s no question that the actual data are consistent with that argument.

    Again, I appreciate that this is a simplification of a more complicated market, but until you can show that permitting more MTR mines would somehow create new demand for the coal they would produce, your argument doesn’t seem to make sense. Can you help me out here?

  2. Warren says:

    I often read things like this (blog entry and responses) and shudder at the amount of polarization on all sides. As far as the publication goes, it is not presenting any new science, simply new data. There is no question that MTM has changed the downstream concentrations of ions in surface waters, primarily as a result of the content and long term contact of fill disposal areas. For people really interested in solutions (as opposed to those interested in polarizing conflicts and finding a cause to back) it should be important to note some significant qualifiers to this discussion:
    a) MTM (or ANY type of surface mining – there are a variety of approaches) do not necessarily require a design that creates valley fills. The larger ones addressed in this study are generally relics of a time already gone by, when neither the USACE nor the EPA exerted much control or jurisdiction over the headwater streams. The case is VERY different now. Proposed fill disposal areas are now designed to minimize contact with water, and further, reduce the footprint of fill areas relative to tonnage produced.
    b) Materials handling requirements AND implementation for much of the area of the study was dramatically different from those employed today. For example, the concerns regarding Selenium were unheard of at the start of surface mining in this area. Now selenium concentrations in target and adjacent strata, as well as existing groundwater, are major considerations in mine planning. Note that in this case, Selenium is only one example. From the start of surface mining in the Mud River watershed, until today, our collective understanding of the relevant science with regard to surface mining and water quality has dramatically increased, and so have both the applicable regulations and the coal industry’s attempts to comply.
    c) No amount of regulation, within the context of our current laws, and the Clean Water Act, in particular, will stop Mountaintop Mining. That is because the Clean Water Act does not address ANY activities that are not directly associated with Water of the United States. Regulations may change the effluent limits, allowable (permittable) loss of the nebulous ‘functions of values’ of Waters of the U.S, etc., but these activities do not signal even the beginning of the end for MTM in its various iterations.

    Having said that, a forward-thinking person may very well come to the realization that a surface mine that currently operates in compliance with all applicable regulations today is a VERY different beast than those that contributed to this study. In fact, the title of Ken’s article may be more appropriately written as “New study confirms water quality damage from long-term mountaintop removal coal mining” and real discussion could follow regarding how that dataset and long term implications may differ from those currently being generated.

    I am not sure why contrasting facts are not always presented in cases which pretend at objectivity – it could be because few academics are funded to study and publish them – but in reality most surface mining currently occurs in areas where pre-SMCRA contour and strip mining occurred. The streams in these areas have often subsided and been buried by activities which were scarcely regulated at the time. Those operations are NOTHING like modern mineral extraction, which often repairs a considerable amount of the former scarring and hydrologic impacts through current reclamation and mitigation requirements.

    Further, there is absolutely no evidence that any of the ionic content changes are irreversible. As individual ions, and collectively, their short and long-term effects should be measured, evaluated, weighed in context, and regulated as needed. As a basis for discussion, it is pure hyperbole to suggest that the elevated concentrations are irreversible. That is simply another way of saying that there is an unlimited supply of free ions on the particle surfaces, which is not true.

    Staying accurate with regard to science, maintaining economic viability in the face of misdirected protests, and finding common ground is the only way these issues will be resolved. The Appalachian Plateau and its people have experienced enough victimization at the hands of both coal companies AND the US Government in the past. In truth, all of these resources are ours to manage in the best possible way, and while we should never forget the mistakes of the past, we should forgive for our own benefit, so that we might look forward and find solutions that do not rely on polarization or hyperbole.

  3. Soyedina says:

    Warren great comment.

    Those operations are NOTHING like modern mineral extraction, which often repairs a considerable amount of the former scarring and hydrologic impacts through current reclamation and mitigation requirements.

    Yes, we can build better ditches. But to date those ditches are not restored or repaired ecosystems and they don’t even have the same functional or taxonomic composition as before. But they might look purty!

    I am not sure why contrasting facts are not always presented in cases which pretend at objectivity – it could be because few academics are funded to study and publish them

    I suppose that could be true. Do you have any evidence that this is true? If you are going to perform character assassinations we should be clear about who exactly it is you are accusing.

    Further, there is absolutely no evidence that any of the ionic content changes are irreversible.

    Agreed, but then we haven’t ran the tape all the way yet! How far in the future would you consider to be long enough to consider “irreversible”, since several decades apparently are not sufficient?

  4. vnxq809 says:

    Matt,

    I never said coal production was up – I’m keenly aware of the downward trend in production. I said employment was up. Therefore productivity is down. Pretty simple.

    I also never said permitting new MTR mines would increase demand. Not sure how you made that leap from my previous posts.

    Vnxq809

  5. Warren says:

    Soyedina,

    I’m not really following the display format of the responses above very well – it could be a browser setting, but I will try to respond to what I think are questions asked in response to my initial post.

    “Yes, we can build better ditches. But to date those ditches are not restored or repaired ecosystems and they don’t even have the same functional or taxonomic composition as before. But they might look purty!”

    I didn’t mean to imply anything about constructed ditches – not at all. I’d rather not go into that myself. I was referring to timing of flows, re-connection of hydrologically (with regard to surface flow and transport functions) of isolated remnants caused by pre-SMCRA mining, as well as pond removal, etc.

    “I suppose that could be true. Do you have any evidence that this is true? If you are going to perform character assassinations we should be clear about who exactly it is you are accusing.”

    No character assassinations intended here, in general or specifically. My point regarding pretend objectivity was intended to refer the broader concept that I was trying to present: namely, that the dramatic impacts of past mineral extractions can teach us a lot, but if they are presented as an alarmist scenario regarding current extraction efforts, it is at best, misleading. I don’t believe the authors necessarily included language to present it in a misleading context, either. But as an important point of clarification, I felt it should be pointed out that the mountaintop removal coal mining in the study was largely performed in a fashion very different from that of today. If that distinction is not made, and discussions regarding mountaintop mining impacts are regulations are carried out while considering the data from that study, then any objectivity is only pretend.

    “Agreed, but then we haven’t ran the tape all the way yet! How far in the future would you consider to be long enough to consider “irreversible”, since several decades apparently are not sufficient?”

    I’m fairly comfortable, personally, with the idea that several decades would generally illustrate the initial spike and subsequent gradual decline in various dissolved solids following fill construction. I say generally, because the factors that may influence that physical exchange have never been adequately controlled for in an large scale experimental setup. I have seen some NEVER spike because they were constructed above local water tables in dry hollows. I have seen some vary seasonally. I have seen some taper dramatically within a few years of completion of construction. I believe that the timeframe presented within the study is adequate for the fills in the study. What we do not know, however, is what the initial concentrations were following elevation. Various measures of ionic content, whether individually or simply as dissolved solids or conductivity, was simply not performed on a regular basis when this type of fill construction began. Therefore, there is not the first prerequisite of a dataset available from which to calculate a rate of decline in concentrations. To interpret this lack of data as evidence for permanent and irreversible impairment is poor logic, particularly when the chemistry and physics of dissolved minerals and rockpiles, respectively, is not terribly complex.

    Please realize I am not attacking the study authors, the blog author, or any previous commenters. I am speaking in general about my thought process and frustrations when I read the various discourse and placed it in the context of how I think about these issues.

  6. jpd22 says:

    Hello Warren, I appreciate your incites.

    I don’t think we can say with full confidence that newer mining and reclamation techniques of dealing with nasty strata are really any better than the bygone days. Unless you have hard data to persuade me, I believe that not is it just the geological potential of the strata involved as the driving factor, but the simple act of blasting millions of cubic yards of rock and disposing it in stream valleys is the problem. I dont care what reclamation is done, you can’t get rid of that ever-churning salt factory. By building the fill you have concentrated the salt; by compacting it you basically ensure long-term leaching. Perhaps all valleyfills should be lined and capped so no water leaches in or out. That could help and PADEP actually requires all new fills (mostly refuse fills in PA) to be capped and lined. Expensive, but necessary.

    It takes a lot of time to wade through it, but if you were to peruse response to comments on the web (e.g., see Appendices in Spruce mine veto; http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/cwa/dredgdis/spruce.cfm) , I found tidbits of data that show even in “top notch fill construction” of smaller fills only a couple yrs old, that DEP still found conductivity greater than 2,200 uS/cm and Se >60 ug/l (12 x the limit). Ouch. Actually they cite several newer stes of fills investigated by DEP with harmful levels of salts.

    I still think that toxic material handling is necessary, but it appears that newer fills with “material handling plans” can be just as bad as the old Hobet fills, and Hobet has been discharging for >20 years, with no sign of salt attenuation, right? Sure, “irreversible” is a harsh term here, but 20 yrs and zero sign of improvement is pretty harsh, and basically unacceptable.

  7. Matt Wasson says:

    vnxq809,

    I gess I st dont nderstand how Asian deand cold increase obs if it didnt case an increase in prodction. Actally, given that ost et coal is ined ndergrond, I gess I do nderstand, bt what I d

  8. Warren says:

    Hi jpd, thank you.

    I do think we can say with some confidence that newer mining deals with nasty strata in a better way – for example, we actually are aware of what to look for in the strata and with current NPDES limits, there is incentive to handle it appropriately in order to avoid violations. A good example, in the context of this report, is selenium. Selenium rich strata are easy to identify via core samples and not terribly difficult to isolate from potential mobility in waterways, particular when targeting strata at higher elevations. Various mineral salts, on the other hand, are not nearly as easy to limit or control, because, well mineral salts are what all of the rocks are made of. Limiting exposure to water is one approach, however, we also know (and by we I mean the data is available to everyone) that many of the local salt contributors to conductivity or TDS measures are non-toxic to aquatic organisms. I have read the repeated references shared by many of these studies, and while I dont want to go back over old news, the link between dissolved salts or conductivity and impaired benthic macroinvertebrate has never been established as causal. The links have, however, been established as causal between specific ion concentrations and actions on specific taxa. Of course, toxicities of some of the ions potentially present in high conductivity solutions may be very high. Therefore, it is important to consider the ions and their potential actions outside of the tired context of conductivity or simply the broad dissolved salts category. I always like to keep in mind that the first ‘bomb’ that went off relating mining, WQ, and benthics was the result of using conductivity as a surrogate for sulfates where datasets were incomplete. That was an appropriate use, scientifically, but since then the shift seems to have gone (at least in the regulatory community, e.g. EPA) away from specific ions and their actions to broader terms like conductivity. That is moving backwards, in terms of both the use of best available science and in terms of continuing a dialogue in good faith with the industry. It saddens me because I am neither, and its easy to see the middle ground. Not so easy, on the other hand, to develop real solutions.

    And finally, with regard to irreversible, I dont know that it is correct to state that there is no sign of salt attenuation. It may be correct to say that there is no sign of levels approaching pre-disturbance levels. But I dont think there is a 20 year dataset on salt concentrations at the discharge outlets. Please understand that I am not splitting hairs OR attacking the study presented. I just hope that this is interpreted in the context of what actually happened over the years, and the progression of mining, outlet development, reclamation, additional mine-through areas, historic lack of materials handling concerns – in that context, it is a stretch to say that data collected from May to December 2010 indicate irreversible damage. The authors don’t say that, that I could tell, and while it may be true (although unlikely), it may also be false. We simply don’t know.

    What we do know, however, is that significant improvements in our understanding of these issues have led to real regulatory changes and attendant changes in how various coal mines operate.

  9. Matt Wasson says:

    Whoa, not sure what happened with that last post – let’s try again

    vnxq809,

    I just don’t understand how the increase in Asian demand could explain the increase in Appalachian coal jobs if total production has declined. Actually, given that most Asian demand is for met coal and most met coal is mined underground, I guess I do understand how it could play a role. What I don’t understand is how permitting a new MTR mine creates jobs when there’s not nearly enough demand for coal in the U.S. (or enough port capacity to ship much more to Asia) to keep the mines that are already permitted running anywhere near capacity. Unless the very act of permitting it somehow creates new demand for the coal it will produce.

    It seems to me that permitting a new MTR mine will simply take some of the market share from another mine where jobs would otherwise have been created or retained. If the market share taken up by that MTR mine comes at the expense of a nearby underground mine then the total number of jobs will decrease. Right?

  10. Vnxq809 says:

    Matt,

    I never said permitting a new MTR mine created jobs. I appreciate your responses to my posts but you seem to digress away from my central, initial comment or point: I disagree with the anti-MTR movement’s theory that through the elimination of MTR (primarily through increased H2O quality scrutiny), or all forms of surface mining for that matter, will lead to an increase in underground jobs. You will have to admit that this is a common talking point for these groups. I feel this will actually lower underground employment because mines with preparation plants, because of their sometimes vast refuse disposal facilities, will more than likely not be able to comply as well. If you can’t beneficate the ROM coal through processing you can’t sell it.

    That’s my one and only point actually. Just wanted to see if anyone agreed or give the opposing view a chance to convince me otherwise.

    Vnxq809

  11. Soyedina says:

    Warren, sorry about my comment i left out a tag. Hope it made some sense.

    the link between dissolved salts or conductivity and impaired benthic macroinvertebrate has never been established as causal.

    This is true in a very narrow and trivial sense. Pond et al 2008 showed that conductivity directly predicts benthic impairment. I am not sure what sort of evidence that you would consider as “causal”. Would you mind expounding on the research direction you see as necessary to answering this question?

    LD50 studies of single surrogate species just don’t have the power to address community patterns. Consider that benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages are composed of breeding populations of many many species (perhaps ~ 80 EPT species , less in headwaters more in larger order streams), most of which are not distinguishable as larvae or nymphs (even to the best biologists in the world) as larvae or nymphs. In order to fully understand (in a causal mechanistic framework) just how communities respond to stressors, we’d first need to elaborate who is a member of the community. As I’m sure you are aware the metrics that are available for use by biologists now ignore the identity of species and instead categorize the abundance of individuals at the genus or family level.

    I hope that you understand what a barrier this simple taxonomic problem is to generating the sort of information that you claim is lacking to affirm causality. What I am curious to hear from you is how you would suggest that biologists set out to test these hypotheses.

    for Ammocrypta

  12. jpd22 says:

    Warren, I agree on many of your points but still not feeling warm and fuzzy that newer material handling techniques controls the problem in Appalachian alkaline drainage coal mining. Minimize, yes, but not to the extent necessary to protect the stream from a threshold-induced impairment of sorts. Also, a material handling plan sounds good on paper and theoretically should work, but where are the data validating success rate?

    On the conductivity vs. individual ions, yes, in a perfect world we would have dose-response based limits to protect 95% of species (the standard). But out of the tens of thousands of potential pollutants around the nation, it has been difficult for EPA and states to develop protective criteria. Plus, individual ions do not get at the synergistic adverse effects of the whole salty soup that likely harms freshwater organisms adapted to living in very dilute Appalachian streams. NPDES regs allow for use of an indicator, like conductivity, when no criteria are available. I’ve seen where some have made analogy that states use E. coli counts in streams to protect human health. The E. coli is only an indicator, and within the E.coli count data could be the super nasty pathogens (cholera, meningitus, salmonella). DEP doesnt make sewage treatment plants monitor for these specific pathogens, only E. coli because it is a good indicator. The relationship between conductivity and the usual alkaline mine drainage ions (Ca, Mg, SO4, K, HCO3) is highly predictable. In this regard, EPA is apparently right to use conductivity as an indicator under the law. But I do see your point that scientifically, we should strive to find cause and effect with combinations of ions and seek protective levels. In the interim, I believe regulations allow for use of indicators, otherwise, many years could go by before a new standard is developed and approved. The CWA acknowledges this problem.

    On irreversible, yeah I am with you to not use that word. “Long-term” works for me.

    Vnxq89, I find your point a good one worthy of investigation. Perhaps with some mine site labor data and fill size data related to the operation, and a little algebra, we could compare how many employee-years per fill size/impact (e.g., acreage, linear feet of stream buried, salt loading)–and somehow controlling for geochemistry of the spoil–between MTM and underground mine of similar coal production. Also, does’nt an underground mine only create a couple large refuse fills, where a large MTM of similar coal yield creates many fills (more overburden to deal with) ? I don’t know but I’ll bet some smart coal engineers can figure that out. If the former is true, then capping and lining the much fewer refuse fills–like a landfill (theoretically no water in no water out)–is a direction one could take to protect water quality. That might not be feasible for a MTM project with 12 valleyfills but gets back to the actual cost-benefit of the operation…

  13. Soyedina says:

    Sorry I forgot to emphasize that the distinct phyletic history of the evolution of species, lineages or populations means that individuals can, might and do respond differently to the same stressor or suite of stressors. This is an expected outcome from evolutionary theory, but is ignored in monitoring protocols for many reasons most dealing with pragmatic realities of data analysis and the desired data product.

    One result of this process is that empirically determined tolerance values for EPT genera or families have large variance, which is spatially autocorrelated with the overlap of the actual geographic range of species. In other words, there are many many barriers to constructing a causal mechanistic explanation from these kinds of data.

    But, it’s moot. We know that conductivity predicts benthic impairment that is prohibited by the CWA, with high statistical power. More power, in fact, than many other hypotheses which explain ubiquitous ecological patterns. This really isn’t in question, from our perspective.

    If you wish to drop me a line and discuss further please do.

    soyedina@yahoo.com

  14. Warren says:

    Conductivity is an appropriate indicator of levels of dissolved ions, but as a value from which to establish regulatory limits it is overreaching. I try in discussions to separate objective science from potential regulatory issues, despite the truth that science should be the primary informer on regulatory issues.

    Conductivity is not causing impairment to benthic macroinvertebrate communities. Even as a gross influence on membrane transport, the effects are murky, at best, and appear to be negligible at the highest levels commonly seen in association with surface mining and fills. This is from toxicology data based on various laboratory prepared solutions, as well as some raw effluent (I dont have the exact references on hand, but Mount comes to mind).

    Personally, I have seen whole effluent tests with very high sulfates (well over 1000), calcium, magnesium, and attendant elevated conductivity result in NO measure of toxicity versus controls for Ceriodaphnia in chronic exposure tests. That is not proof of anything, except that it opens a door for further investigation into the difference between the assupmtion of causal relationship between conductivity and impairment and the clear realization that the story is a bit more complex. And yes, Ceriodaphnia is potentially not as sensitive as some of the native taxa. I have seen Isonychia used, with similar results. That is definitely one area where research is needed, but not one that should be shouldered by any industry as an exploratory regulation.

    Conductivity is a strong predictor of impairment. But not necessarily the cause. And that is not hair splitting, at all. And in regards to Pond, et al, that you reference, that was an excellent study. Unfortunately it was used somewhat innapropriatley in subsequent EPA actions. It doesnt help much at all that the results are often misinterpreted. I know that peer reviews have been performed, and like I said, the science is good. The misapplication of those results, however, is bad for all of us.

    I have reviewed the underlying database used by Pond and Passmore at length. There is a huge difference between the presented journal article/findings (which is good science) and the subsequent EPA 2010 benchmark document. For one, consider this statement:

    “The goal is to establish that salts are a general cause, not that they cause all impairments, nor that there are no other causes of impairment, nor that they cause impairment at any particular site”

    So why attempt to regulate salts at all sites as if they are a specific, leading cause, at every site? That is the point where the giant leap is made from science into overreaching regulation.

    I really appreciate everyone’s thoughtful comments and perspectives on this issue. I probably know more about the ecology of these issues than I do the economics or legal aspects. But that it where I think the answers will be found, and they will, of necessity, be compromises all around.

  15. jpd22 says:

    Warren, I too appreciate this discussion and your perspectives. But with your statement “Conductivity is a strong predictor of impairment. But not necessarily the cause.” , I would bet legally that there is no need to actually identify the cause, but instead, legally, DEP must prevent impairment below the outfalls. Impairment of aquatic life from a permitted activity is illegal , so if states can identify that “strong predictor” in regionally relavent areas, then curtailing it through limits and enforcement should be the first managerial step required. Knowing the exact cause(s) is academic and worthwhile, but managers need to act on impairments now (and before they happen). The Pond paper basically provides evidence of a good indicator worthy of managerial action, right now. But that is only 1 paper they frequently point to, when really there are several papers corroborating it.

    You also ask “So why attempt to regulate salts at all sites as if they are a specific, leading cause, at every site? That is the point where the giant leap is made from science into overreaching regulation.”.

    Wouldnt it be very difficult to predict it on a site-by-site basis before the activity occurs,? Permits need to be protective from the start and then “wait and see” when it comes up for renewal after monitoring and assessing the discharge’s impacts to the receiving stream. If I were DEP, I would want the ounce of prevention up front (maintian low conductivity to a level where impairment DOES NOT [is not likely] to occur), when I signed that permit.

    You inferred that toxicity testing (eg., Ceriodaphnia) is probably not relavent to native benthos, and I would wager that any organisms that can be reared in a lab (like crustaceans or even Isonychia–that don’t naturally live in headwater Appalachian streams) and exposed for a mere 30 days to some level of salts, won’t give a reliable signal. I’m sure toxicologists dont want to hear that, but really, can we really model nature in a cup? The failure of toxicolgical evidence to correspond to and to protect native biota is becoming more clear. As in your example of tox studies, if some really think 1000 sulfate (plus the co-occurring salts) can protect the native headwater stream community in central appalachia, then they might want to brush up on how permit regulations, policy, pollution prevention, ecological assessment, and waterbody attainment are all intertwined. Indicators such as conductivity (as with E. coli) in permits to protect from aquatic impairments (and ultimately our drinking water) is a simple management tool that will ultimately work best, regardless of cause, fancy statistics, and rationale behind EPA’s benchmark derivation.

  16. Soyedina says:

    With some obvious exceptions (Se and fish skeletal deformities, for a really good one) insights from toxicological methods have generally failed to provide any actionable guidance for protecting aquatic ecosystems from the effects of surface coal mining. In this thread I’ve tried to emphasize that this should be expected given a number of contingencies that complicate these analyses.

    Benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring typically does not monitor populations of any species. In most cases, the target taxa are suites of species (sometimes but not usually monophyletic groups) which may not share ecological traits or physiological tolerances, but that simply happen to be indistinguishable in immature life history stages. How could we possibly expect studies using organisms which typically don’t even occur in these communities (Ceratodaphnia, Isonychia to provide causal information about the response of populations of each individual species in each community?

    Monitoring results can yield some of this information, but it’s the correlative relation that Warren seems to be denying has explanatory power.

    Conductivity is not causing impairment to benthic macroinvertebrate communities

    Really? Then, what is?

    IMO I’m not sure you can even know this in theory, but I am certain that you have not tested the hypothesis. Remember, in order for a community to be “impaired” then populations of many many species must be altered. What evidence is there that these species are not affected by conductivity? No one has looked!

    We might use Isonychia nymphs in a tox study, but Isonychia nymphs collected in the field can’t be identified to species so laboratory results are immediately limited in their explanatory power. If we don’t know what species these nymphs represent, those types of studies can never provide us with the conclusions that Warren requires. Isonychia nymphs are not diagnosable to species, undescribed species are known to exist and the ecology of species in this genus varies a great deal (some are even found in low order streams elsewhere in the southeast!)

    In fact, no scientific method is going to provide causal certainty. Fortunately, the law doesn’t require this anyway (as jpd22 amply illustrated above). The 500 uS threshold has as much predictive power as any ecologist ever dreams. don’t just take my word for it….

    I sure hope that doesn’t make Ken want to smack me upside the head but if it doesn’t work, here is a link

    http://i1107.photobucket.com/albums/h395/soyedina/MTRwhitepaper36.jpg

    to a .jpeg of figure 3.6 in the MTR white paper hosted on this site.

    for Neohermes

  17. Soyedina says:

    With some obvious and important exceptions (Se and fish skeletal deformities, for a really good one) insights from toxicological methods have generally failed to provide any actionable guidance for protecting aquatic ecosystems from the effects of surface coal mining. In this thread I’ve tried to emphasize that this should be expected given a number of contingencies that complicate these analyses. This is true even when we ignore the change in the organic matter transport that is accompanied by deforestation and surface disturbance.

    Benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring typically does not monitor populations of any species. In most cases, the target taxa are suites of species (sometimes but not usually monophyletic groups) which may not share ecological traits or physiological tolerances, but that simply happen to be indistinguishable in immature life history stages. How could we possibly expect studies using organisms which typically don’t even occur in these communities (Ceriodaphnia, Isonychia) to provide causal information about the response of populations of each individual species in each community?

    Monitoring results can yield some of this information, but it’s the correlative relation that Warren seems to be denying has explanatory power.

    Conductivity is not causing impairment to benthic macroinvertebrate communities

    Really? Then, what is?

    Really? Then, what is?

    IMO I’m not sure we can even know this in theory for reasons I have attempted to elaborate upon here, but I am certain that no one has adequately tested this hypothesis in the causal framework that you desire. Remember, in order for a community to be “impaired” then populations of many many species must be altered. What evidence is there that all of these species are not affected by conductivity? No one has looked!

    We might use Isonychia nymphs in a tox study, but Isonychia nymphs collected in the field can’t be identified to species so laboratory results are immediately limited in their explanatory power. If we don’t know what species these nymphs represent, those types of studies can never provide us with the conclusions that Warren requires. Isonychia nymphs are not diagnosable to species, undescribed species are known to exist and the ecology of species in this genus varies a great deal (some are even found in low order streams elsewhere in the southeast!) Without an account of breeding populations of reproductively isolated species then much of the full arsenal of quantitative methods and ecological theory cannot be brought to bear upon this problem.

    I’d offer instead that no scientific method is going to provide causal certainty in any situation, for this is not what science does. Fortunately, the law doesn’t require this anyway (as jpd22 amply illustrated above). The 500 uS threshold has as much predictive power as any ecologist ever dreams. don’t just take my word for it….

    Figure 3.6 in the MTR white paper hosted on this site is an excellent example of how well conductivity predicts benthos impairment.

    http://i1107.photobucket.com/albums/h395/soyedina/MTRwhitepaper36.jpg

    this figure illustrates the predictive power of conductivity with regards to stream condition using the WVSCI and the more accurate and precise GLIMPSS indices, I am not sure why this result is questioned.

    I might add that I am in no way questioning the validity of benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring nor toxicological studies in general. Instead, it’s important to recognize the limitations of these methods in the causal scenario you have raised. This is an important and active area of research and has repeatedly been discussed in the literature (see Pond 2011 Hydrobiologia for the best extant analysis of taxon loss, but note that even in this study must treat some genera and families as taxa, not species as taxa).

  18. Soyedina says:

    Sorry for the “really what is” doubling there I wasn’t impersonating a parrot I reformatted a post which the spam filter didn’t like.

  19. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Warren,

    You wrote:

    “The larger ones addressed in this study are generally relics of a time already gone by, when neither the USACE nor the EPA exerted much control or jurisdiction over the headwater streams. The case is VERY different now.”

    Could you provide some citation or web-link to support this statement? If it’s not true, much of your argument unravels. Based on this statement, you go on to argue that this long-ago mining was done much differently from today, and that today’s permits are so different that the environmental consequences are not the same.

    I’ve followed Hobet 21 permits off and on over the years, and I’m just not sure you are characterizing the timing of much of the mining there correctly. There is a long string of very large permits issued at that mine starting in the early 1990s — this is not a bunch of pre-SMCRA discharges we’re talking about here. While the study references that mining has taken place in that area since the 1970s, I don’t believe most of the large valley fills are nearly as old as you make them out to be.

    So perhaps you would provide some supporting documentation — citations to studies, links, permit numbers, anything? — to support what you’re saying?

    Thanks, Ken.

  20. Warren says:

    jp – You make excellent points, and specifically regarding areas I am not at all qualified to speak to – namely the legal requirements for causality or basic requirements to affect appropriate protections. Having done ecological consulting work for a variety of government and private clients all over the southeastern US as well as WV, I have over the years shifted from a perspective of 1) believing in regulation and erring on the side of caution when it comes to protecting ecological systems to a somewhat more jaded view of 2) many regulations may be misplaced, misguided, overrreaching, and, in many cases this is learned in retrospect, long after the landowner, resident, etc rights have been violated (generally financially) with no real recourse. Now, understand that that is simply my opinion, based on where I have been and what I have seen. It isn’t always true, and mostly my experience in this regard has related to state/local regulations regarding water resources, wetlands, or threatened and endangered species. This issue at hand, in many ways, transcends those categories, and enters various grey areas of legalities that I’m not terribly comfortable arguing. What I intended to discuss all along was the polarization of the issues that I see happening, and reference back to the science and the hard conclusions that may be drawn from hard data – a comfortable area of thought and logic that requires little interjection of opinion. Does that extend well to regulatory concerns? Oh but that is always the rub, isn’t it? You can’t legislate very well what you can’t understand, and while I’m not arguing for no regulation, my opinion is that as currently proposed, there are serious issues of overreaching with regard to regulation of dissolved salts.

    To further expound, I want to address some of Soyedina’s apparent concerns with what I have stated here. First of all, Selenium is a completely different beast from dissolved salts. In terms of concerns regarding impairment, it ranks right up there, and rightfully so. Effects of selenium are well documented in terms of both field studies AND toxicology studies, including relatively brilliant tracings of assimiliation, pathways, and mechanisms. Again, this is a very different scenario from dissolved salts. I would go as far as to say that the only thing they have in common is that they both have been found to increase as a direct result of mining, and are also associated with discussions regarding impairment and regulation. So, for my good faith discussions and efforts, I deliberately make it a point not to lump them together. Please recognize that I am not questioning the source, presence, or role of selenium in our waterways. I could question the numerical criteria, but I am simply not interested it that, as I feel that compliance isn’t necessarily that difficult, in theory.

    Now, back to dissolved salts. Lets realize that at this point we are talking about differences of opinion, and not differences in actual facts. We are all reading and reviewing the same scientific sources. At best, we should take from those sources the details and solid conclusions. What we do with those as individuals then stems from opinion. I realize that we have very different opinions in regards to at least some of the topics we have covered. I am not making assumptions on your behalf. Please don’t do that to me.

    Yes, I am denying that correlations, in and of themselves, lack real explanatory power. Simple introductory statistics will teach you that. Forgive me if I seem to wax too technical with regard to appropriate word use, but as a scientist that is important to me. Therefore, I can deny, almost without any real thought, that conductivity, particularly in the post-mining ranges commonly reported, causes impairment. Why? Because conductivity is an indicator of the ability or capacity of the solution to equalize net differences in voltage. Rarely does that property alone convey a toxic effect (the common exception being osmoregulation and similar cellular functions involving ion transport). I think most of us know this, or if not, it is readily available information. Beyond that, some significant potential contributors to that conductivity have clearly been shown to harm aquatic organisms. Chlorine ions, for example, are extremely toxic at elevated levels. Potassium and Sodium, as well. Their toxic effects are not at all a result of the net voltage or electron transfer potential that they contribute to the solution (that is, their contribution to conductivity). It is, instead, a result of their reactivity and/or interference with specific cell membrane functions. So, conductivity may very well be a good predictor of impairment, and even more so when the more toxic ions are significant contributors to conductivity. But when we consider that the primary contributors (relative ion abundance) to elevated conductivity below valley fills is most frequently sulfates paired with various balancing ions, would it not suddenly make more sense to a)clearly determine an impairment threshold for sulfates? and b) abandon gross numerical criteria such as conductivity or TDS from a regulatory perspective (note, this does not imply abandoning monitoring and/or reporting thereof)?

    Now, with regard to how to go about determining thresholds for the real culprits, the more toxic of the ion contributors – well that is actually very simple. It take time, and yes it will never be 100% accurate for every site for every species or subspecies or life stage, etc., but a thorough review of existing literature alone, with that goal in mind, could yield a more thorough, targeted, and robust set of initial criteria for specific ions from which to work from. Take for example, bicarbonate vs. sulfates, and consider the variable distributions both geographically and locally within different strata. It is a more complex picture than the common ‘downstream of mining’ maps and numbers would have you believe. The coal industry is probably most aware of these differences, based on large databases of multi-strata core samples. Why shortcut the investigatory process when loads of additional, good data is still out there that may lend itself to more appropriate protections, as needed? I have opinions on why that seems to have happened, and I attribute the cause more to political expediency and extreme polarization than I do anything else.

    Conversely, and on an entirely different (at first glance) subject – mining has traditionally caused significant impairments to receiving waters that have absolutely NOTHING to do with conductivity. In fact, Im guessing that you have seen mashups of various studies that numerically correlate mining with impairment, rather than mining with conductivity with impairment. I would posit that, in general, the correlation between elevated salts and benthic community impairment relies just as much on the mining correlation with impairment as is does individual ion, and probably more. How, you may ask? Well, if you have observed stream changes over time in response to repeated mining and timbering events, particularly with regard to temporary changes in runoff coefficients, subsequent entrenchment, temporal loss of detrital inputs and changes in composition, bedload and depositional changes, loss of canopy, introduction of ponded, high chlorphyll content, warm water… all of these things can and have been individually linked to specific mechanisms of impairment for a broad suite of aquatic organisms. Why are they not regulated? Again, there is the rub. As far as I can see, there is no regulatory framework for what happens in uplands, generally speaking. But practically speaking, and with the exception of entrenchment, these variables are readily controllable and may be remedied (or reclaimed) relatively easily. Keep in mind that many streams that may qualify as reference (with regard to WVSCI scores) exist in a post-contour mining state, with dense secondary growth (albeit often lower canopy species richness and a very different understory). It is very logical to assume that once upon a time, particularly during their pre-SMCRA, pre-CWA peak of disturbance, that they were severely impaired. These contributors to impairment may be readily corrected. Why are these factors not generally considered and or analyzed in conjunction with water quality as relates to aquatic organisms? Well, they have been, but to a very limited degree. The often cited Pond and Passmore relied primarily on RBP-defined physical variables, mostly (I am assuming) because it is a common measure and was readily available with the dataset. And the relationships were murky, at best. If, however, measures of entrenchment, bedload, sediment deposition patterns and rates, and very important – temperature variations and insolation – I have no doubt that they would find strong and significant relationships between these variable and various multimetric indices of benthic community impairment. This has been done, to some degree, but not nearly as comprehensively as conductivity measures. The reasons for that extend to repeatability and subjectivity issues, time consuming nature of the measures, and of course, demand. But the underlying principles are well known. I speak about this not to detract from the variable impacts of specific ions in effluent solutions, but to remind anyone that may care that the correlations may rely on similar, often shared causes and, therefore, as standalones, may very readily be misinterpreted as proven or dominant causes. That is epidemiology 101, which in essence embodies the principles that the EPA benchmark paper claims to follow. However, their attendant confounding factors analysis is extremely lacking, as I am sure any non-EPA epidemiologist would attest to. There are a number of reasons and explanations I could suggest, that I wont go into here, because I need to get to my final point – and that is:

    The relationships between ions and organism harm or impairment to communities is clearly much more specific than ‘aquatic community’ impaired by ‘dissolved salts.’ Other relationships involving well-known interactions of physical parameters and phenology for a large number of organsims as various taxonomic levels is well known. When gross measures in a de -facto experimental design do not reveal these relationships, it does not imply that the chemical measures with the strongest relationships are causal, particularly when there is significant evidence (indeed, even in the WAB database supporting the EPA benchmark document, if you care to pursue that investigation) that there are known potential confounders, that distribution was extremely skewed despite log normalizations, and, most importantly, there are synergies at work with regard to both WQ and physical parameters, temperature being one of the more noticeable variables.

    In summary, I want to make it clear that I am not doubting that mining has contributed to impairment, and I am not representing that all potential impacts may be avoided, mitigated, or otherwise removed from regulatory consideration. I am criticizing what I see as a perpetual shortcutting of solid logic and science with little apparent regard for the potential economic impact, all taking place while more accuracy is readily available in the form of obvious physical relationships that may be easily controlled.

  21. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    All,

    I just want to point everyone to Coal Tattoo’s comments policy, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/comment-policy/ especially this part:

    “Please provide links or citations to published material to back up your views, when appropriate.”

    This is an interesting discussion, but all of you who are taking part need to provide citations and links to back up what are becoming increasingly broad statements about facts and conclusions regarding the science here … Please comply with the rules, and try to limit the length of some of these comments just a bit so folks can follow it without reading a book.

    Ken.

  22. Warren says:

    Ken,

    I just noticed your questions/comments preceeding my earlier response.

    I can say that I have not followed developments or permits within that watershed with any regularity, ever. I can speak, with some level of familiarity, to the history and development of surface mining in West Virginia. I grew up playing in the woods and exploring as many areas of the state that I could, and you are probably aware that for a large percentage of the state, easiest access is via former contour and strip benches and access roads. That doesn’t provide me with sound-bite facts, hard numbers, or publication references, but it certainly informs my memory and opinions. Before I go further into that, I feel that I should address one of your statements, to make it clear that I am not responding to a challenge:

    “Could you provide some citation or web-link to support this statement? If it’s not true, much of your argument unravels.”

    Which argument? Either you skipped some or you misunderstood most of what I have said, because the majority of my opinions and arguments presented here do not at all hinge on the history of the permits within that specific watershed. Yes, that is where the article’s studies were focused, and yes, I was commenting on a blog post that presented that argument. But I was commenting about polarization, and my statements regarding pre-SMCRA and pre-CWA jurisdiction apply to surface mining, in general. If you can’t comprehend those portions of my argument simply because you believe I can’t substantiate my statement for a specific watershed, then you have made my point for me – polarization of an issue. In this particular case, a direct statement against MTM that is not necessarily presented in appropriate contet. I won’t go so far to accuse you of that because this is probably only the 5th or 6 blog post of yours that I have read and from what I can gather you are a well-respected journalist…

    So my response regarding that watershed and explanation of my comment, specific to the study, is as follows:

    There has been extensive mining, per your citation above, in the area since the 1970. Along with the attendant overburden removal comes disposal, and at the time (I am assuming), it was transported (mostly by gravity) with no regard that I am aware of, for the makeup or separation of various strata, the target coal being the exception. Does this happen today? Not legally. You are probably as aware, if not moreso, of the applicable regulations.

    Going further, if you have tracked these permits since the early 90’s, you have probably been witness to the varying applications of CWA jurisdiction, from pre SWANCC ruling policy approaches to asserting jurisdiction through to post Rapanos, with various interagency ‘policy’ written at regular intervals in between. This translated directly to, I have no doubt, chronological differences in terms of what was considered permanent impacts under Section 404. The same thing happened all over the United States, regardless of which Federal appellate court was consulted. With few exceptions, the changes from 1990 through to present resulted in more area qualifying as jurisdictional wetlands, or more directly relevant, more headwater drainages actually qualifying as streams. I was an awestruck onlooker at the formation and early years of OVEC, and spent many formative years learning about the nebulous concepts embodied within the CWA and how a conscientious scientist might objectively measure and analyze the things he is familiar with in order to best answer the charge set forth under the CWA. Then came the lawyers, and so I decided to keep creative writing a separate avenue from my paying field biologist job…

    So I am fairly confident you understand, from a CWA perspective, how dramatically different many of those sites are from those currently permitted. It is a function of the change in how regulations were applied. This directly translates to the subject area in that few attempt to permit or design fills of the magnitude addressed in the study, and I dont believe that anyone seriously proposed to do that without the tighter controls on materials handling with regard to readily identifiable constituents of concern. Significant changes, with regard to both implementation and permit issuance, has happened in the last 4 years or so that I have actually paid close attention to mining in West Virginia. You know that, and so do a lot of other people, but you insult my intelligence and that of your readers (I should hope) by asking me to enumerate examples under threat that most of my arguments are invalid without it? I am sure you can control the discussion here, if you were so inclined, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it more accurate.

    I have noticed a few occasions where my comments here were excerpted and I was asked to substantiate claims. In each case, I gave my best good faith effort to respond or clarify. And aside from issues with imprecision or my perceived missaplication of a scientific concept, I have overlooked challenges to prove a negative or present facts supporting a contortion of what I actually intended to say. Because I have enjoyed, and, in fact, am learning a lot from the dialogue. The free and open discussion is not something that I see either on the industry side or when I sit with regulators. But such a forum is important, and I fully intend to respect its value.

    Having said that, I sincerely hope that I misinterpreted what you implied in your above comment, Ken, with regard to my arguments. If you require more clarification of what I meant, or examples, please feel free to ask me.

  23. Warren says:

    Thank you Ken, I just realized the details of your comment policy. I will refrain from further pursuit of the unpublished obvious here, as long as you don’t assume that applies to all of the other hard facts I have discussed.

  24. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Warren,

    let’s just start with that first question I had –

    You wrote:

    “The larger ones addressed in this study are generally relics of a time already gone by, when neither the USACE nor the EPA exerted much control or jurisdiction over the headwater streams. The case is VERY different now.”

    Could you provide a citation or two to published, peer-reviewed articles, to publicly available government or industry reports, or to DEP permit numbers that would support your statement that the larger permits addressed in this study “are generally relics of a time already gone by” and that “the case is very different now”?

    I’m not insulting anyone’s intelligence, I just expect you — and all Coal Tattoo comment-makers — to back up what they say with proof … So how about some proof of these particular statements, other than your own observations?

    In this instance, your comment with these statements in it was basically arguing, among other things, that the study results describing serious water quality impacts from mountaintop removal weren’t relevant to permits being issued today, because things have changed. If your statement about the timing of permits in the area is wrong, then this part of your argument necessarily unravels.

    Thanks, Ken.

  25. jpd22 says:

    Soyedina and Warren, at this point, I doubt that there are but a few CT readers following this thread and have since moved on, but I appreciate Ken Ward for allowing us the webspace to bounce ideas off each other in this format. Thank you, Mr. Ward, I hope in your mind we are collectively adding to the discussion, despite our innate need to argue, among other things.

    Just following up on some thoughts from earlier posts. First, you’re right Soyedina, that showing true causality in nature is unlikely. Hypotheses can pass rigorous tests, but science cannot “prove”. I tried to say in the last post that causality would be nice to know here, but it is not necessary to manage aquatic resources. Causal inference through inductive and deductive hypothesis testing is the best thing going, and is entirely adequate to help inform on permitting future mine discharges. Government agencies like DEP, EPA, OSM and Corps can’t continue to permit mines as before, with the weight-of-evidence that exists now. I still do not see flaw in having a good, simple predictor of impairment to help inform these permit decisions and to shoot for protective limits. Although Warren believes “conductivity is a good predictor of impairment” he believes there are other potential drivers, and there is no question he is right. How much they actually contribute to impairment compared to say, conductivity, is definitely worth testing and debating. But in most of the mining datasets published to date, it appears that conductivity always rises to the top in explanatory power.

    Soyedina also points to the reality that family (and even genus level) bioassessments are still surrogates (but I would argue their “good surrogates for now”). You’re absolutely right that more detailed species-level information (and other taxonomic groups for that matter) could be required to assess biological condition for regulatory purposes. No argument there. I also agree that standard toxicity tests with surrogate lab rats shouldn’t be used to develop protective chemical criteria in these types of streams. I’m not even sure what standard tox test would have told us about Mud River because the tests are just not relevant. A recent paper calling on the need to integrate tox test info with ecological assessment points to the problem: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749111006282 (subscription needed but abstract is helpful). I was a little disappointed that this Duke study did not assess macroinvertebrate communities concurrently with the chemical analyses (the appendix is actually from DEP samples in the Guyandotte watershed).

  26. jpd22 says:

    Warren, I too would like to see evidence that newer mines are less salt (or Se) producing as pre-law mines or even mines form the 80’s and 90’s. You seem to paint a logical picture of natural attenuation over time based on geophysics, but based on ranges of dissolved salt concentrations still present from old mines that resemble newer mines (granted no one has published data on historical before, during, and after water quality, even though the data surely exist in industry or government hands), one might be confident that no significant reductions have occurred (and it is just as likely that discharges could get even worse with time as fill material weathers). A good chemical data set from the coalfields of eastern KY (Dyer 1982 http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/4087 ) shows that some of the earlier water problems are virtually no different than newer fills of today. Your perspective on other confounders is very good too. I have learned a lot from the EPA benchmark study on evaluating the strength of confounders, but you’re right that it might have gone a bit further. On impoundment and canopy issues you mention though, I found interesting contrary evidence on pages 93-96 in: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/cwa/dredgdis/upload/Appendix_6_Response_to_Comments_011311.pdf. As a student of the CWA and mining issues, I’ve learned a great deal from this response to comments documentation in the Spruce case. It’s not peer reviewed literature, but it still draws from real data that is publically available for others to verify. In a point/counterpoint format like in this document, we observers can make judgment on the strength and weakness of their arguments.
    As for one good point you made on conductivity, obviously voltage is not the harmful element here per se, but it is the variety of dissolved salts as you say, and their relative quantity. Without getting lost in the weeds of conductivity and how it measures the ability of water to carry current, etc., you understand that it is common practice to use conductivity because it is so easy, cheap, and actually more accurate to measure than individual salts or TDS from labs. That’s common knowledge so no need to cite a paper here. But I am with you though, that a field-based sulfate criterion would be very helpful in the coal fields of KY, WV, VA, etc. and might not unnecessarily cause the distractions that conductivity and voltage are causing in this discussion now.

  27. Warren says:

    Ken,

    To answer your question – First off, stating that the findings of the study are not relevant to mining today is not close at all to what I was getting at. Degree of relevance, certainly. But not with affront to the study, only in the context of what appeared to be a regulatory discussion among commenters. And with that in mind, I was hoping to assist with clarification of what seemed to be somewhat broad and alarmist perspectives that were clearly over generalizations. So I hoped to shed some light on what I thought was appropriate context for discussion implications of the study, and went directly for the obvious: mines represented in that study are not typical of those permitted or under design today. I said that with no studies or results to back it up. As I described earlier, regulatory changes have had significant impact on how surface mines are designed and permitted. Many of those changes happened AFTER the majority of the subject permits were issued. And while I shot from the him, I did take the time to check up on a few things. For anyone that would like to see an illustration of what I am describing, check out the two links. I created the illustrations myself, in hopes that it would help further the discussion by both clarifying my point while also providing a reference. And while I am not referencing my own hasty .pdfs as publications, you will see that they rely solely on publicly available, simple government agency data (referenced).

    Basically, the data I reviewed of permit sizes and disturbed acreage within the same watershed as the study showed that while mining was clearly present in small amounts on 1962 USGS quad maps (not referenced, but available online), it was, in fact, minimal. Conversely, by 1992 the data source (referenced) indicated that of total disturbed area within that watershed, nearly 50% occurred prior to 1992. Subsequently, approximately 75% of the total disturbance was completed by 1994. Total permitted area (undisturbed or not) followed a similar pattern, but was delayed somewhat.

    I also added approximate time of significant CWA events with regard to the establishment of jurisdiction, and particularly with regard to Section 404 issues. I have not looked up references for any of the Chamber’s rulings, nor Anti-deg revisions or implementations, nor the first instance during which impacts to an intermittent or headwater stream was required under Section 404 for surface mining or fills. That info is readily available, for those completely unaware of timelines relevant to this discussion. But, my point was simply that I see today’s surface mines as being very different from those in the study, and that the use of that study to imply anything regarding long-term, irreversible, order-of-magnitude, etc is not necessarily a prudent approach.

    https://docs.google.com/open?id=0BywvOoie55tMZDc0NTA5OGEtNjExZi00MDFlLTk2NzUtOTAyODc2M2NiNjAy

    https://docs.google.com/open?id=0BywvOoie55tMMDE2YWM3ZTgtYTRlZC00MTUzLTkyZmEtMzY0NWExZDc0ZDRj

    The map is intended to illustrate the same dataset geographically. References for all data are contained within the files.

    Please note that I am not criticizing the study, but suggesting caution regarding its application. Reference to Pre-SMCRA mining (apparently not relevant to my specific point regarding the study, but relevant to surface mining in general) was meant (later in the comment) to address a larger issue of what I perceive as polarization.

    jpd – I would like to see the evidence, as well. Again, I don’t know if less salt, per se, is likely, without the removal of water contact. I don’t want to cite something unreference-able, but just take a minute to imagine a fill that is designed well above groundwater sources, and with appropriate sloping and cover on decks to prevent significant infiltration and subsequently limit or preclude discharge altogether. This isnt always possible, but there are cases (many) where it is.

    What also may very well be possible, if pursued, would be the active displacement of the more toxic components of the myriad of salts. And, if necessary, a numerical criterion, field or otherwise. Am I recommending sulfates? Not at this point, no correlation data that I have seen have indicated a significant causal relationship between sulfates and various multimetric measures of macroinvertebrates. I believe I thoroughly understand so far what has been stated, and I don’t believe that conductivity nor voltage are distractions. Some may consider them distinctions without a difference along with other broad generalizations about dissolved salts, but I believe it is important to clearly understand the differences, particularly when they are not terribly obscure. I will return with a reference to a study or two that I refer to regularly regarding differential toxicities of common dissolved ions.

    A note about causality – I am not looking for absolute proof. I am concerned about jumping to conclusions regarding causality based on correlations alone. Maybe I am being too precise in my comments, sometimes I feel I’m speaking a different language. There are established procedures for deducing causality, referenced by way of additional reference within EPA’s own benchmark study. They did not follow them. Am I looking for absolute proof? Not at all. But I am not afraid to openly discuss the weaknesses or data gaps in either side of this issue. And doing that successfully requires precision:

    Conductivity rarely harms aquatic life. Dissolved salts have been shown to harm aquatic life, but not all of the possible salts, and not at all possible concentrations. Some progress had been made in understanding this with regard to specific ions. My opinion is that we can do much, much better.

    I also believe we can learn a lot more about the physical stream characteristics in relation to benthic macroinvertebrates, and consider those factors in conjunction with water chemistry. And we should keep that discussion wide open while we work on solutions from a scientific and regulatory perspective.

    Thanks
    Warren

  28. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Warren,

    The study mentions the figure of 28 square km … most of that — 22 square km, comes from the following permits:

    S500203 Westridge No. 3 Surface Mine
    S500207 Surface Mine No. 45
    S500306 Surface Mine No. 44
    S500307 Surface Mine No. 42
    S500396 HOBET 21 WEST RIDGE SURFACE
    S500404 WESTRIDGE SOUTH NO. 1 SURFACE
    S500806 Surface Mine No. 22
    S501101 WESTRIDGE NO. 2 SURFACE MINE
    S501692 SUGARTREE BRANCH PERMIT

    Of those permits, only two — West Ridge and Sugartree Branch — were issued prior to 2000. Those permits add up to 22 square km of area disturbed, and 13 square km of that was disturbed since 2002.

    That is data that one of the study authors provided to me.

    Thanks very much for this discussion … I’m going to close the comments on this one for now — Coal Tattoo is going to be mostly inactive for the next couple of weeks, but check back after the first of the year for more.

    Ken.