Removing Mountaintops to Get Coal is Bad, But Dumping Fill in the Valleys Is Even Worse

mountaintop removal coal mining west virginia photo

Mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia photo: Vivian Stock/Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition via Yale Environment 360

If you haven't follow the actions of the EPA in the past month as they try to reign in the Army Corps of Engineers and coal companies regarding mountaintop removal coal mining, a new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid in Yale Environment 360 provides a comprehensive overview of the situation.

No Genuine Middle Ground Here...
Quite rightly, McQuaid also points out there's really no satisfactory middle ground here: No amount of mining fill dumped into streams can really be considered benign environmentally. But really, the part that really stands out for me, and even if you're familiar with these issues is worth revisiting, is the devastating impact on ecosystems of dumping mining fill into stream:

Each spring, the rain that falls on Appalachian mountainsides gathers into thin rivulets, mixing with spring water and groundwater. These streams, often no more than a foot wide, teem with microscopic, insect and animal life that is the foundation of the forest and river food chains and biodiversity. Plug up those intermittent and ephemeral streams with mining debris, and the ecological fallout extends far beyond the edge of the valley fill, into the surrounding forest and the larger perennial streams and rivers down the mountain.

A valley fill, for instance, profoundly alters forest hydrology. When the rainwater hits a valley fill instead of a stream bed, it filters through broken shale and sandstone before flowing out at the bottom. Ordinary minerals liberated from deep inside demolished mountains — heavy metals such as selenium and magnesium — infiltrate it and flow downstream.

During the Bush years, government scientists produced a growing pile of studies that show how valley fills foul waterways. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist A. Dennis Lemly found that heavy concentrations of selenium in West Virginia's Mud River, downstream from the huge Hobet 21 mountaintop mine, were causing deformed fish. A 2008 EPA study showed that a huge increase in "specific conductance" — the concentration of electricity-conducting metallic ions — immediately downstream from valley fills was wiping out entire populations of mayflies, a ubiquitous species whose disappearance indicates broader ecological effects.

Read more: The Razing of Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Revisited (They've got a good gallery of mountaintop removal coal mining photos that accompanies the article too...)

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