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Mountaintop removal could devastate region

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.

(Adobe Acrobat required for .pdf files)

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.

Wealth of details about

environmental effects

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.

Late Friday, EPA and the corps approved that rule change. Administration officials said that the change would "enhance the agencies' ability to protect aquatic resources by ensuring more consistent and effective implementation of [Clean Water Act] requirements."

In mountaintop removal, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves.

Leftover rock and dirt - the stuff that used to be the mountains - is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

In 1977, Congress agreed to allow mountaintop removal when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

But the practice was supposed to be a very limited exception.

Generally, coal operators were required to restore mined land to its approximate original contour. Companies could remove entire mountaintops if they submitted plans to develop the land that they flattened.

In July 1998, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed a federal court lawsuit to try to curb mountaintop removal. The group alleged that numerous laws meant to control the practice were being ignored.

Six months later, EPA and other federal agencies agreed to settle a key part of the lawsuit. The conservancy would drop its effort to block all future valley fills. In exchange, regulators would conduct a detailed study to come up with ways to more strictly police mountaintop removal.

In a February notice announcing the study plans, EPA said the probe was "to consider agency policies ... to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects to waters of the United States and to fish and wildlife resources affected by mountaintop mining operations, and to environmental resources that could be affected by mountaintop mining operations."

EPA and the other agencies agreed to complete the study within two years. Besides the corps, the other agencies are the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In late 2000 and early 2001, EPA officials from the Clinton administration tried to release a draft of the EIS before President George W. Bush took office. The release was blocked, in large part because of complaints from Gov. Bob Wise, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, according to previously released government records.

Elimination of streams

'most serious, direct impact'

In November 2001, federal officials told Haden in a legal filing that they "are currently at work on a draft EIS, and will complete this draft as soon as possible."

The draft provided to the Gazette-Mail includes an incredible amount of detail about the extent of mountaintop removal to date. It also describes the findings of more than a dozen specific scientific reports conducted as part of the EIS.

The report says that "the most serious, direct impact from mountaintop removal" is the elimination of streams buried by valley fills.

From 1985 to 1999, at least 562 miles of perennial and intermittent streams "have been lost under valley fill footprints" in Appalachia, the study found. Regulators said that their count does not include ephemeral streams, because data was not available for them.

"Valley fills destroy stream habitats, alter stream chemistry, impact downstream transport of organic matter, and affect thermal and flow regimes available to downstream biological communities," the study said.

In terms of effects on forests, the draft study said that, "there is disagreement about what these changes in the terrestrial environment mean.

"The coal industry points with pride to its reclamation efforts in creating habitat for important game species such as turkey, quail, grouse, deer and boar; wetlands habitats in scattered ponds and depressions; and grassland and edge habitats for a variety of game species," the draft report says.

"The accuracies of these claims have been challenged by others who argue that [though] open habitat may be beneficial to game species, large contiguous patches of open land are not needed."

In a study on the potential cumulative environmental effects of future mountaintop removal, federal officials tried to estimate how much land would be damaged by future mining.

They found that, under a worst-case scenario, the coalfields of West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee could lose more than 7 percent of their forest cover under long-term mining scenarios.

That amounts to about 230,000 acres, or 350 square miles.

The amount of forest cover lost could be less, depending on potential future mining restrictions, and whether companies become successful in regenerating forests on mountaintop removal sites.

"The future mining scenarios will ultimately lead to an increase in the mining-barren lands and grasslands habitat types in the study area," the report says.

The report says that mountaintop removal "is not the only threat to the terrestrial environment of the study area."

Future timbering, the report says, is projected on more than 770,000 acres in the region.

"This is approximately 26 percent of the study area, and is approximately a three times greater surface area impact expected from mountaintop mining," the report says. "However, the duration of the impact is expected to be less with forest harvesting than with mountaintop mining due to the nature of the disturbance."

When coupled with future mining, there is the potential for more than 1,500 square miles of forest "to be lost in the study area," the report says.

"The study results suggest that approximately 35 percent of the existing forest of the study area will remain if the future mountaintop mining and forest harvests take place."

The report said, "Both deforestation and the 'forest fragmentation' that result[s] when mountaintop mining and valley filling interrupt the Appalachian forests is a significant concern from the standpoint of forest-interior wildlife species."The degree to which re-

establishment of healthy, functional forest ecosystems can occur is critical information to evaluate long-term, cumulative impacts of this activity, and the 'sustainability' of forest interior species in the mining region."

The study team found that, while, "historically, ... reclamation with trees has not been particularly successful, and that impediments exist, appropriate and proven techniques are available in the state programs if reforestation is selected as the post-mining land use.

"Multiple mountaintop mining/valley fill operations may severely impact the biodiversity and sustainability of terrestrial environments," the study found.

"Landscapes once comprised of forested habitat become a mosaic of meadow, shrubland and forest patches," it says. "Thus, the resulting landscape takes on a checkerboard pattern and habitat patches become isolated."

In Monday's Gazette: The Bush administration wants to provide coal operators with "one-stop shopping" for mountaintop removal permits.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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