In the newest edition of the journal Science, a group of the nation’s leading environmental scientists is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop mining permits.
The scientists – including Orie Loucks, professor emeritus of zoology at Miami University – argue that peer-reviewed research unequivocally documents irreversible environmental impacts from this form of mining, which also exposes local residents to a higher risk of serious health problems, and the United States should take a global leadership role on the issue as surface mining in many developing countries is expected to grow extensively in the next decade.
In mountaintop mining, upper elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, and explosives are used to break up rocks in order to access coal buried below. Much of this rock is pushed into adjacent valleys where it buries and obliterates streams. Mountaintop mining with valley fills is widespread in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.
“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” said lead author Margaret Palmer, professor of stream ecology at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”
Research by Miami’s Loucks focused on the effects of mountaintop coal mining on forest productivity in the central Appalachian States.
“Many mid-sized watersheds in the region have had up to twenty percent of their timberland stripped off and the underlying rock blasted and pushed into nearby valleys,” Loucks said. “Mine reclamation practices generally have not included re-establishing a forest cover, resulting in a huge loss of income from the land as well as destabilizing stream flow, soil erosion and stream chemistry.”
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.
In addition, Loucks notes that much of the coal being mined is burned in the Ohio Valley and the result is acid gas emissions that cause acidity in rainfall, which leaches essential bases such as calcium from the soil.
“It forces the ecosystem to be hit by an uppercut and a stomach punch at the same time,” Loucks said, adding that losses to the renewable resources economy are upwards of 80 percent.
Loucks’ data show this holds for southern and southeastern Ohio as well as West Virginia, where he has worked extensively.
“Our studies show that states in the Appalachian region implemented their own local reclamation standards under the 1977 mine reclamation law, even as the scale, technology and impacts of mountaintop mining escalated,” Loucks said.
His students found the permitted forest and stream degradation to be unsustainable and may require reclamation throughout several centuries.
In the Science paper, the authors also describe human health impacts associated with surface mining for coal in the Appalachian region, including elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities. The scientists argue that regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.
“Now more than ever, we need a 21st century approach to fulfilling our nation’s energy needs,” Palmer said. “No longer can we risk human and environmental health in our never-ending search for inexpensive energy. We need to move beyond filling valleys with mountaintop mining waste and temporarily storing fly ash in containment ponds to a modern energy production process built upon sound science, environmental safety and economic common sense.”
The authors – hydrologists, engineers and ecologists – are internationally recognized scientists, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences.