CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When you think of mountaintop removal coal mining, you probably don't think of salamanders.
But you should.
Because when coal companies use the cheapest and most destructive methods to blow off the top of an Appalachian mountain to extract the coal buried inside, guess which animals make up the single-largest group that's destroyed in the process?
Yep, salamanders. The Appalachian Mountains, where 2.5 million pounds of explosives are detonated daily for surface mining, are home to more kinds of salamanders than anywhere else on Earth. By weight, there are more salamanders in the forest than birds and mammals combined.
And when you suddenly decimate the largest component of a food chain, it's bad news for the health of all kinds of animals for lots of years, maybe forever.
As a kid growing up in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, I watched the coal companies strip bare the mountains around my home. It ruined our well water, cracked our windows and covered our daily lives in a blanket of dust. Turns out what's bad for salamanders is also bad for people.
We'd be wise not to ignore the plight of salamanders. Because they breathe through their skin and absorb the pollution around them, amphibians have long been considered an important early warning sign of the broader health of the environment. As frogs and salamanders go, so could the rest of us.
If pollution from mining decreases water quality, for example, it can cause the loss of entire populations of salamanders. But that's only the beginning of the destructive cycle that ripples throughout the food chain, including, in the case of highly mechanized mountaintop removal, pollution linked to cancer and birth defects in nearby human communities, and the crippling economic impacts of thousands of lost mining jobs.