Valley fills cover hundreds of miles, report says
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.
Today, some valley fills measure more than 100 million cubic yards, and bury two miles or more of a stream.
Overall, Fish and Wildlife found nearly 900 miles of streams buried by valley fills.
That's almost as long as the Ohio River, which winds 981 miles from the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh to where it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill. It's also equal to three trips back and forth from Charleston to Morgantown for a Mountaineer football game.
In West Virginia, Fish and Wildlife scientists found at least 470 miles of streams buried or permitted to be buried by valley fills since 1986. Refuse fills accounted for 123.5 miles of that total; overburden fills made up nearly 346 miles.
The West Virginia portion of the study, however, included only mining permits issued out of the Division of Environmental Protection's Logan regional office. That office covers the coal-producing counties of Logan, Lincoln, Boone, Wayne and Mingo.
Valley fills are also burying streams in other DEP regions, especially the Oak Hill region, which includes part of the Kanawha River watershed.
The report concludes that the Mud River watershed illustrates the intensity of valley filling that can occur in single watersheds.
The Mud drains about 250 square miles. Within the upper 23-square-mile reach of the drainage, about 29 percent of the streams have been filled or approved for filling. Within the 16.5-square-mile portion of the Mud upstream, and including Connelly Branch, 39 percent of the streams have been filled or approved for filling.
Numerous fish and wildlife that are federally listed as endangered or troubled species live in the watersheds affected by mountaintop removal, the study says.
"West Virginia has also been identified as one of the largest areas of contiguous forest in the Northeast, as a core area for many of the southern-affinity species of neotropical migrant birds, and is considered a 'hot spot' for bird species of high concern in the Northeast United States," it said.
"Consequently, the loss of these streams and their associated forests may have ecosystem-wide implications."
The report also takes issue with the coal industry and state regulator view that filling in smaller streams - those with a drainage area less than 250 acres - doesn't do as much environmental damage.
Fish and Wildlife officials surveyed Pigeonroost Branch in Logan County, the potential site of a new mountaintop removal valley fill. They found that, though it drains less than 110 acres, it supports aquatic life that needs flowing waters for a continuous period of six months to survive.
The report concludes that the loss of smaller, headwaters streams and their surrounding forests to valley fills "may have ecosystem implications, particularly when considered together with other mining-related impacts in the Appalachian coalfields region.
"Moreover, the quantity and quality of water in a large stream system is a function of the watershed in which it originates," it said. "Productivity in small streams may be economically insignificant; however these streams are the basis for downstream water quality, hydrologic patterns and biological production."