Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Stream Damage Could Take 1,000 Years to Fix

mountaintop removal coal mine photo

photo: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In case you needed anymore convincing that mountaintop removal coal mining -- and dumping the waste in the streams and valleys surrounding the mine afterwards -- is an environmental (and social) nightmare, check out a new piece in Yale Environment 360. It really does a good job portraying the devastation: Runoff Contaminates Water With Heavy Metals
Author John McQuaid describes what has happened in Laurel Branch Hollow, West Virginia,

"There used to be pine trees, and it was a very pretty shaded area. There was a nice trail that went up the hollow and I used to take my granddaughter up there and we'd go ginsenging [harvesting ginseng roots, an Appalachian custom] on up the hill," says Miller, whose grandfather built the family homestead in 1920. "She really misses not being able to do that. She said, 'Can't we go someplace else? There's no hills to climb there.'"

The remaining length of Laurel Branch, running past the house into the river, has become a sluice for contamination: As rainwater runs down Hobet 21's dismantled mountainsides and fills, it picks up minerals and pollutants that damage delicate stream chemistry for miles downstream. Laurel Branch and multiple valley fills like it feed the Mud River, which is heavily contaminated with selenium, a heavy metal that works its way up through the food chain in ever-greater concentrations. One study has associated it with deformities — including curved spines and two eyes on one side of the head — found in fish larvae in a downstream reservoir.

Damage Really Can't Be Repaired
Recently the Obama Administration acted to more strictly regulate mountaintop mining operations, but McQuaid points out that the damage caused by these may never be able to be fixed... except over perhaps a thousand years,
Mountaintop removal does damage on both vast and microscopic scales, from hydrological changes over hundreds of square miles to effects on the life cycles of the tiniest stream microbes. Overseeing the repair of such damage is beyond the capabilities of any government agency; the most serious impacts — to streams — may be all but impossible to fix.

Margaret Palmer, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, was part of a team of scientists that compiled a comprehensive database of 37,000 U.S. river and stream restoration projects. She found no record of any mining-related stream-building project that could be called ecologically successful.

"Can you create these streams de novo, from scratch? There's no evidence," says Palmer, who testified on behalf of West Virginia environmental groups in a suit faulting the Army Corps of Engineers' stream management. "Over thousands of years, I think you could do it. You have to have erosion of the land, get the hydrology back. I'm a restoration ecologist — I hope it can be done. But given how much damage they've done, right now I don't think so."

For why this is and more on why coal companies' efforts to rehabilitate areas they've damaged have been ineffective, check out the original article: Mountaintop Mining Legacy: Destroying Appalachia's Streams
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