Scientists call for halt to mountaintop coal mining
A dozen scientists, including three from Maryland, have called for a halt to mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia, saying there's overwhelming evidence the practice of blasting the tops off mountains to get at the fuel is causing serious and long-lasting environmental damage and likely is hurting the health of the people who live nearby.
In a paper published today in the journal Science, the researchers say mountaintop removal, widespread in West Virginia, southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, is destroying extensive tracts of biologically rich forest and degrading hundreds of streams. Fish and drinking-water wells are being contaminated, while the air downwind is fouled with high levels of hazardous dust.
And, they note, there are higher rates of hospitalization and deaths for heart, lung and kidney problems in mining regions than elsewhere. The health disparities cannot be accounted for by other factors such as smoking, diet, income or access to health care, they contend.
The scientists’ call for an end to mountaintop removal comes amid a raging controversy over the practice, in which hundreds of peaks and ridges throughout Appalachia have been blasted away to get at thin seams of coal beneath. The rocks and rubble are bulldozed into adjacent stream valleys, burying the waterways. The mining industry and its supporters contend it’s the only feasible way to get at the coal, and they contend that the blitzed areas, such as the one seen above on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, are subsequently reclaimed in accordance with federal law and regulations.
But the researchers say the environmental and health effects have gotten “surprisingly little attention.” They based their conclusions on a review of dozens of recently published scientific studies, plus an analysis of water quality from some 1,200 West Virginia streams.
“It was just clear to us that .. the evidence was absolutely overwhelming that the impacts are really severe and long-lasting,” said Margaret Palmer, director of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and the paper’s lead author. They also concluded that government-mandated efforts to reclaim the mined areas were failing to replace the forests and restore the streams to their original condition.
“And so, we made the unusual decision,” Palmer explained in a phone interview, “that as scientists we were going to make a policy recommendation – because the evidence was so overwhelming – to halt mountaintop mining.”
Palmer, whose research has focused on the impacts of development on waterways, said she was originally drawn into the mountaintop-removal debate a few years ago, when she was asked by opponents of the mining practice to testify in a court case about the efficacy of efforts to restore buried streams. She said she realized then that because the impacts of mining were so complex, there was a need to bring together scientists from various disciplines to take a more holistic view of what was going on.
Their call for a halt to mountaintop mining comes within days of the Environmental Protection Agency approving the permit for another mine in West Virginia, after holding it up for weeks. The agency, under pressure from mining opponents, has been conducting extensive reviews of all pending mountaintop mine applications. Palmer said the research cited in the Science article was generally available to government regulators, and she noted that some of it actually was done by EPA scientists.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said he had not yet read the Science paper, but based on press reports of it declared that “there’s nothing new here” and called the journal paper “an advocacy piece.”
The higher incidence of health problems in mining regions likely stems from poverty and lifestyle, the industry spokesman said. The large-scale land disturbance caused by mountaintop mining unavoidably impacts the forests and streams, he said, but contended that was a tradeoff federal lawmakers had decided to make in favor of the economic benefits of producing coal in the region. The surface mining law basically requires only that mined areas be restored to their original contours, he noted, while the Clean Water Act is supposed to ensure stream water quality.
“Their real argument is not with us or the regulators,” Popovich said. “Their argument is with Congress.”
Palmer said the problems associated with mountaintop mining in Appalachia may also be occurring elsewhere where coal is being surface-mined. Maryland has no mountaintop-removal mines, but it does have 68 permitted mines, with about half of them actively producing coal, according to Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. The agency recently approved a permit for a new
surface deep mine in Garrett County, he said, but the permit is being challenged. (corrected 1/8/2010)
Although Palmer and at least one other researcher who contributed to the Science article say they've been paid to testify as expert witnesses in court cases brought by opponents of mountaintop mining, Palmer said none of the scientists received funding from anyone to work on the paper. “We volunteered our time,” she said.