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EPA study confirms damage from strip mining

Read more in Coal Tattoo.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal government scientists say a "growing body of evidence" shows that mountaintop removal coal mining is destroying Appalachian forests and dangerously polluting vital headwater streams.

In a new report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlines the results of dozens of scientific papers published over the last decade about the controversial mining practice.

While EPA scientists focused on direct damage to streams that are buried and on pollution downstream from valley fills, the 119-page report also warns that damage to ecologically important forests is greater than some routinely cited statistics suggest.

Last week, EPA published the study by the agency's Office of Research and Development in conjunction with the issuance of new water quality guidance intended to reduce mining's adverse impacts on aquatic life.

"The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites."

The EPA study, which amounts to a literature review, backs up a peer-reviewed paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science. That paper concluded that mountaintop removal was having "pervasive and irreversible" environmental impacts that current reclamation practices are unable to repair.

In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast apart hilltops and uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

Previous EPA studies have projected that 1,200 miles of streams would be lost to valley fills and associated mining activities from 1992 to 2002.

The new EPA report cautions such numbers "is a useful beginning, but not does address the loss of other headwater ecosystems." The report cites potential loss of springs, seeps and wet areas that may occur outside the stream channel and in smaller watersheds not included in previous studies.

In other documents, EPA describes the headwater streams lost to mining as "like the capillaries within our circulatory system."

"They are the largest network of waterbodies within our ecosystem and provide the most basic and fundamental building blocks to the remainder or the aquatic and human environment," EPA said in a decision document outlining its reasons for seeking to block the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

The EPA has moved to block Arch Coal Inc.'s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County and issue new water quality guidelines for mining as part of a broader crackdown on mountaintop removal announced in March 2009, just months after President Obama took office.

In response to citizen lawsuits, federal agencies had agreed a decade ago under the Clinton administration to work on new mining restrictions. But those plans were dropped in favor of moves to streamline the permitting process for mine operators after George W. Bush became president in January 2001.

Last week's EPA announcement was praised by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.

"After years of the coal industry making molehills out of Appalachia's mountains, these new guidelines will reduce the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, and communities will be able to focus on building a clean energy economy," said Sierra Club President Michael Brune.

But the National Mining Association blasted EPA for putting the new guidelines into effect before allowing a public review and comment period, adding that federal officials continue to point to "new science that has been found to be both flawed and limited in its findings and application."

The new EPA report found, among other things, that:

  • Concentrations of salts, measured by electrical conductivity, are on average 10 times higher downstream of mountaintop removal mines and valley fills than in un-mined watersheds.
  • These increased levels of salts disrupt the lifecycle of freshwater aquatic organisms and some cannot live in these waters.
  • Water with high salt concentrations downstream of mining and valley fills is toxic to stream organisms. To date, the report said, there is no evidence that streams that undergo "mitigation" or "restoration" efforts have "returned to their normal ecological functions after the mining is completed."
  • The new EPA report noted that more than 380,000 acres of Appalachia was "deforested" by surface mining between 1992 and 2002. By 2012, that area was expected to have increased to 1.4 million acres. "The estimated habitat loss included a three-fold increase in the area of former headwater stream watersheds classified as land use/land cover databases as 'surface mining/quarries/gravel pits,'" the EPA report said.

    But, the EPA report noted that the natural condition of the Appalchian landscape is dominated by "interior forest."

    "A decrease in forest cover followed by conversion to grasslands or other land cover has the potential to shift the fauna of the region from that found in intact, high-elevation forests to one dominated by grassland and edge dwelling species," the EPA report said.

    Citing previous studies by U.S. Forest Service experts, the EPA report found that fragmentation is causing interior forest to be lost at a rate up to five times faster than the overall forest lost in the region to mountaintop removal.

    Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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