CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.
The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.
Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.
"Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive," states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.
The new study emerges this month, just as preliminary results are being released from a $15 million industry-funded research project started in part to examine mining company complaints about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal permits and previous studies that outlined environmental and public health damage from the practice.
The EPA has sought to toughen permit reviews under the Clean Water Act to force the industry to reduce water-quality impacts, especially from the common practice of burying streams beneath huge rock and earth "valley fills."
The new government-funded study, though, outlines new concerns. For example, it says mining has created 640 distinct areas of mountaintop removal and 285 distinct valley-fill areas where mountains have been lowered by an average of more than 110 feet and valleys raised by an average of nearly 175 feet. In those areas, slope steepness has been reduced by about 10 percent, the study said.
"Topographic changes and land-cover changes associated with mountaintop mining have the potential to produce changes in climate at local to regional scales," the study states. "Modeling is needed to determine if the now extensive development of mountaintop mining is leading to such changes."
The study also notes that mountaintop removal often converts mature forests, which store carbon dioxide, to reclaimed sites that do not sequester as much of the climate-warming gas. In addition, the mining process itself and the burning of coal are sources of global warming pollution, the study says. It recommends studying these changes through a carbon-accounting process from pre-mining to between 50 and 75 years after mining is complete.