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Study finds damage far downstream of mine sites

Read the study: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal is harming water quality far downstream from where active mining buries creeks beneath valley fill waste dumps, according to a new scientific paper that adds to the growing concerns about strip-mining damage.

Researchers from Duke and Baylor universities conducted the study to try to get at a question that has eluded concrete answers for more than a decade: To what extent is mountaintop removal runoff polluting waters downstream from mine sites?

Using satellite images and computer data, the scientists created maps so they could examine the scope of mining and the degree of water quality impairment in a 7,500-square-mile area of the Southern West Virginia coalfields.

Numerous previous studies have linked runoff of various pollutants from strip-mining to impaired water quality, measured in part through reduced diversity of aquatic insects. Studies have shown this impairment is related to high levels of electrical conductivity, caused by sulfated and other pollutants.

Duke aquatic ecologist Emily Bernhardt and her co-authors pinpointed levels of sulfates and conductivity that leave streams impaired, and then calculated the extent to which streams in the mining region exceed those pollution levels or were impacted by a percentage of mining linked to impairment.

Among other things, their analysis found that 22 percent of the streams in the region drain areas with mining extensive enough to leave the water quality there impaired.

The study also reported that, while nearby valley fills had buried 480 miles of streams in the study area, pollution runoff from mountaintop removal likely stretches four to six times that far.

"These analyses suggest that the many individual mines in the region are having additive effects and that more attention must be paid to the cumulative impacts of surface coal mining in this region," the study concluded.

The study was published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Bernhardt has previously discussed its preliminary findings in a state Environmental Quality Board case and a federal court lawsuit. In both instances, she was testifying as an expert witness for citizen groups that were challenging mining permit approvals.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of studies that show residents near such mining are at greater risk of serious health impacts, including birth defects and cancer.

West Virginia political leaders have opposed the Obama administration's efforts, but have offered no plans of their own to reduce mining's environmental impacts or investigate the public health concerns.

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


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