Strip-mine valley fills in central Appalachia have filled in nearly enough streams to stretch the length of the Ohio River, according to a new government report.
In response to concerns about mountaintop removal strip mining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted valley fills in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The bulk of the fills were found in West Virginia, where at least 470 miles of streams have been buried or approved to be buried, and in Kentucky, where permitted fills covered 355 miles.
"As individual valley fills have increased in size, the number of valley fills has also increased in response to a steadily improving market for coal, and coal production and use levels that have reached unprecedented highs," the 10-page report said.
"In addition to aquatic habitat losses, terrestrial wildlife habitat losses have accelerated; surface disturbance once quantified in permit applications by numbers of acres today can be quantified in terms of square miles," it said.
"The fills have resulted in the replacement of thousands of acres of deciduous hardwood forest by the herbaceous plant communities favored in most mine reclamation plans."
Under federal law, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to evaluate the effects of land and water development projects - such as surface mines - on fish and wildlife resources.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the service to help evaluate the impacts of valley fills on aquatic resources. The service started by trying to put together an inventory of valley fills in the four states.
David Densmore, supervisor of the service's Pennsylvania field office in State College, submitted a 10-page report on that inventory to EPA Region III water division director Tom Maslany on Sept. 23.
In the report, the service noted that no state is actually keeping track of the number of valley fills or the amount of streams buried by them. Fish and wildlife officials had to review hundreds of permit files to try to compile the lists themselves.
The report says that, in some states, complete information was not available. In others, Fish and Wildlife researchers didn't have time to review statewide files.
"Since some mining regions of West Virginia and Kentucky were not evaluated in this study, the actual loss figure is expected to be higher," the report said.
The report defines valley fills as including waste piles that are used to dispose of spoil, the rock and earth removed to reach coal reserves, and those used to dispose of coal refuse from cleaning plants.
"Disposal of coal mining waste material overburden and coal processing waste into stream valleys has occurred in the Appalachian coalfields for decades," the report said.
Traditionally, fills were placed only in extreme headwaters of streams.
These "head-of-hollow" fills affected only ephemeral streams, or those that flow only occasionally during rainy weather.
The volume of these fills was generally less than 250,000 cubic yards each.
But in the mid-1980s, the size and number of mountaintop removal operations increased, especially in Southern West Virginia.