Future mountaintop removal coal mining may eventually destroy an area of Appalachian forest the size of Putnam County, according to a draft environmental study obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
Gazette published EPA draft environmental study
The entire study is available for download here.
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Without tougher regulation and better reclamation, future mountaintop removal is expected to wipe out nearly 230,000 acres of ecologically diverse hills and hollows, the draft federal government study concludes.
Nobody knows for sure how many acres of Appalachia have already been damaged by mountaintop removal.
But when projected future timbering is included, the total forest area in the region that could be seriously damaged in the future reaches nearly 1 million acres, according to the draft mining study.
If mountaintop removal is not dramatically curbed, many more miles of additional streams will be buried by valley fills, the study says. Streams that aren't buried could be seriously polluted. Wildlife, songbirds and fish in a rare, ecologically diverse area will likely be lost.
"All of these changes suggest that the biological integrity of the study area may be jeopardized," concludes the study, prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three other federal agencies and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"Mountaintop mining operations in the Appalachian coalfields involved fundamental changes to the region's landscape and terrestrial wildlife habitats," the study says. "With the increasing size of these operations, a single permit may involve changing thousands of acres of hardwood forests into grasslands.
"While the original forested habitat was crossed by flowing streams and was comprised of steep slopes with microhabitats determined by slope, aspect, and moisture regimes, the reclaimed mines are often limited in topographic relief, devoid of flowing water, and most commonly dominated by erosion-controlling, herbaceous communities.
"Islands of remnant hardwood vegetation may be present on some of the reclaimed mines, and some planting of trees and shrubs may have been undertaken," the draft said.
Late last month, the Gazette-Mail obtained the draft study through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, was supposed to be formally released by EPA by December 2000, so it is already a year and a half overdue.
About a year ago, regulators released thousands of pages of documents concerning the EIS. But they have never before turned over an actual draft of the report.
The draft covers nearly 900 pages, not including 18 appendices and a more than 300-page study of the potential cumulative impacts of future mining.
Throughout the report, regulators use the phrase "mountaintop mining," rather than the legally correct term, "mountaintop removal."
Coal industry officials came up with the "mountaintop mining" terminology, much as they pushed to have "surface mining" replace the more negative term, "strip mining" years ago.
In the draft EIS, EPA says that "The term 'mountaintop mining,' as used in the EIS generally refers to three different kinds of surface coal mining operations [contour mining, area mining and mountaintop removal mining] that result in the disposal of excess spoil in valley areas.
"This use of the phrase 'mountaintop mining' contrasts with the [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] term 'mountaintop removal,' which refers to a particular method of mining where a basal coal seam is completely removed from one side of a mountain to the other," the draft says.
Some of the draft's pages are dated October 2000. But EPA officials said the document is actually a "working draft" dated January 2001. Bonnie Smith, an agency spokeswoman, said it is the most current version that exists. EPA contractors from the firm Gannett Fleming are working on an updated draft, Smith said, but haven't completed it yet.
In a letter to the newspaper, William Hoffman, acting director of the EPA Office of Environmental Programs, cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from the draft.
"Please be advised that the referenced technical studies and EIS materials are in various stages of development," Hoffman said in his April 25 letter. "Therefore, it would be premature to represent these or any of the preliminary findings as the position of the agencies developing this EIS until the studies and EIS documents have undergone a thorough interagency review and concurrence process."
Still, the draft study provides an incredible wealth of details about mountaintop removal's environmental effects.
For example, the draft says that government scientists have found little evidence to support coal industry claims that modern reclamation can bring new life to land that is flattened by mountaintop removal.
"To date, neither stream construction or enhancement or wetland creation have been demonstrated to fully compensate for the functions lost by the filling of headwaters streams or the indirect effects to downstream segments of streams from filling upstream portions," the draft study says.
"Isolated wetlands on reclaimed mines [i.e., wetlands that are not connected via flowing water to streams] will provide habitat for some species of wildlife, but obviously cannot contribute to the biological needs of the aquatic ecosystem downstream of the mine in the same way that the destroyed stream segments used to."
The study examines four alternatives for future action, including no new regulation and severe restrictions on valley fills. But so far, the study team has not proposed a preferred alternative.
In the draft report, federal regulators say the coal mining "continues to play a considerable role in West Virginia, with over 3 percent of that state's total employment and personal income.
"The economic role of mining in West Virginia is understated by this percentage," the draft report says. "Coal mine operators purchase goods and services from other firms and coal miners spend much of their wages on goods and services sold in their regions and states. These purchases have a multiplier effect on the regional and state economies."
Previously released EPA records showed that the most severe valley fill restrictions studied - limiting fills to smaller, ephemeral streams - would make nine of 11 mine sites examined unworkable.
The draft, however, indicates that West Virginia University officials are still working on a complete analysis of potential economic effects of various tougher mountaintop removal regulations.
Bush officials move to help legalize valley fills
In November 2001, federal regulators said in court documents that, "As the work developed, it became obvious the study was not comprehensive enough to grasp the magnitude of the economic impact of mining with the alternatives of continuing or eliminating the use of valley fills. The study had to be restructured in order to provide useful information, continuing the delays already caused by the other studies."
Over the last few weeks, mountaintop removal has returned to the headlines.
Bush administration officials have moved forward with a rule change to help legalize valley fills. Environmental groups and some in Congress have stepped up an attack on the administration's plans.
Under the change in Clean Water Act rules, the definition of "fill material" would be changed. The Corps of Engineers could continue to authorize fills through its "dredge-and-fill" permits. A lawsuit to try to block such permits is pending before Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II in Charleston.