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

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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


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