Mountaintop removal for coal is harming fish life, feds study says

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

WASHINGTON — In West Vir­ginia’s Ap­pa­la­chian Moun­tains, fish are van­ish­ing. The num­ber of spe­cies has fallen, the pop­u­la­tions of those that re­main are down, and some in­di­vid­ual fish look a lit­tle skinny.

A new gov­ern­ment study traces the de­cline in abun­dance to moun­tain­top re­moval, the con­tro­ver­sial coal-min­ing prac­tice of clear-cut­ting trees from moun­tains be­fore blow­ing off their tops with ex­plo­sives.

When the re­sult­ing rain of shat­tered rock hits the riv­ers and streams that snake along the base of the moun­tains, min­er­als re­leased from within the stone are chang­ing the wa­ter’s chem­is­try, the study said, low­er­ing its qual­ity and caus­ing tiny prey such as in­sects, worms and in­ver­te­brates to die.

“We’re see­ing sig­nifi­cant re­duc­tions in the num­ber of fish spe­cies and to­tal abun­dance of fish down­stream from min­ing op­er­a­tions,” said Natha­niel Hitt, a re­search fish bi­ol­o­gist for the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey’s of­fice in Kear­neys­ville, W.Va., and one of the study’s two au­thors.

Mr. Hitt and his co-au­thor, Doug Cham­bers, a bi­ol­o­gist and wa­ter-qual­ity spe­cial­ist in the Char­les­ton, W.Va., of­fice of the USGS, took a 1999 study of the Guy­a­n­dotte River ba­sin’s fish pop­u­la­tions by Penn State Univer­sity re­search­ers to com­pare them over time.

For two years start­ing in 2010, they sam­pled the pop­u­la­tions in wa­ters down­stream from an ac­tive moun­tain­top coal-min­ing op­er­a­tion. In one of the sam­ple ar­eas, the Mud River wa­ter­shed, which con­tains the larg­est trib­u­tary of the Guy­a­n­dotte River, at least “100 point source pol­lu­tion dis­charge per­mits as­so­ci­ated with sur­face min­ing have been is­sued,” the study said.

North Amer­ica’s cen­tral Ap­pa­la­chian Moun­tains, where the ba­sin lies, are con­sid­ered a global hot spot of fresh­wa­ter-fish bio­di­ver­sity, but few re­search­ers have in­ves­ti­gated the im­pact of moun­tain strip min­ing on stream fish, and the ef­fects “are poorly un­der­stood,” the study said.

Mr. Hitt and Mr. Cham­bers found that the num­ber of spe­cies was cut in half, and the abun­dance of fish fell by a third. The sil­ver­jaw min­now, rosy­face shiner, sil­ver shiner, blunt­nose min­now, spot­ted bass and large­mouth bass, along with at least two other spe­cies de­tected be­fore their study, were no lon­ger there.

Another fish spe­cies, the small and worm­like least brook lam­prey, never be­fore de­tected, had moved in. In ar­eas of the river ba­sin where there was no moun­tain­top min­ing, fish flour­ished. In ad­di­tion to spe­cies that were in those wa­ters pre­vi­ously, seven new ones were found, in­clud­ing the spot­fin shiner, the spot­tail shiner and the golden red­horse.

“I think if we only fo­cus on the fact that it’s fish, ... some peo­ple will say, ‘So what?’ ” Mr. Cham­bers said. But fish and in­ver­te­brates they eat are ca­nar­ies in a coal mine for re­search­ers, “in­di­ca­tors of the wa­ter qual­ity,” he said.

Re­search such as the USGS’s study of moun­tain­top min­ing, pub­lished on­line this month by the So­ci­ety for Fresh­wa­ter Science, is viewed with sus­pi­cion in coal coun­try, where min­ing op­er­a­tions pro­vide thou­sands of jobs.

United States - North America - West Virginia


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here