Mountaintop removal has caused irreversible harm, researchers say

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A group of scientists presented research in Pittsburgh Tuesday about the environmental impact of mountaintop removal mining, claiming that the practice had irreversibly harmed Appalachian ecosystems, damaging streams and increasing the risk of flooding.

Despite mining company and government efforts to restore ecosystems, surface-mined areas suffer damages that are effectively permanent, said Dr. Keith Eshleman, a professor at the University of Maryland.

The scientists were in town for a weeklong conference of the Ecological Society of America. The research they presented Tuesday was some of the first that provided ecological data on mountaintop mining, Dr. Eshleman said.

Mountaintop mining, which annually produces more than 100 million tons of coal, mostly occurs in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, with a lesser presence in Virginia and Maryland. During the practice, mining companies clear mountaintops of forests, topsoil and rock, detonate explosives to access coal seams and move debris into nearby valleys. Later, they try to reclaim affected areas by replacing topsoil and planting grasses, a process called mitigation.

Mining officials said Tuesday that the scientists' claims were greatly exaggerated.

"We have a number of studies ... that have indicated post-mining impacts are minimized," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "They're clearly different in many cases, but certainly they're not terminal, nor are they negative. You've got to give this some time."

They also said the criticisms ignored the economic benefits of mountaintop mining.

"The law does not seek to ban mountaintop mining because Congress understood the importance to the economy," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "We're talking about tens of thousands of jobs that are supported either directly or indirectly in regions of these states that have very little high-wage employment."

The scientists, visiting from several universities, spoke about myriad effects of mountaintop mining on ecosystems, from changes in the flow of streams to reductions in bird populations.

Several were co-authors of a paper published in January in Science magazine that called for a moratorium on mountaintop mining permits.

"We're reconfiguring ... the potential for that landscape to support living things, including humans," said the discussion moderator, Dr. William Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

"All the people who live in those areas should be concerned," Dr. Schlesinger said.

In particular, by compacting soil and clearing forests, mountaintop mining increases the risk of flooding, Dr. Eshleman said. Other scientists said the practice reduces water quality in streams and wells. In the January paper, they wrote that water samples from domestic wells in mined areas had higher levels of certain chemical constituents than water in unmined areas, even after reclamation.

Since 2000, mountaintop mining has quickened, partly due to an increasing demand for coal, Dr. Schlesinger said.

The Obama administration has re-examined the practice, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threatened in March to halt work at a mountaintop mining site in West Virginia.

"EPA is using existing regulatory authorities to significantly strengthen and improve protections for the public," an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman wrote in a statement.

Still, Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland, said current mining regulations were insufficient.

Companies proposing to mine a site must apply for a permit and prove that they plan to minimize their environmental impact. They are governed by the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

But Dr. Palmer said company mitigation practices did not address some of the most serious effects of mining. She particularly questioned a procedure called "stream creation."

"They shape drainage ditches into the shape of streams," Dr. Palmer said. "There is no such thing as stream creation in any sort of science."

Several hundred people registered to attend the conference, which concludes Friday.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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