Mountaintop Mining’s Devastating Effects on Streams

Runoff into streams from mountaintop removal mining sites may contain selenium, leading to reproductive and health problems.©

Environmentalists have long considered mountaintop removal mining (MRM) to be one of the most environmentally degrading activities performed in the U.S. The coal industry, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, have asserted that damage associated with MRM is reversible, but new scientific evidence shows that damage done to streams and rivers from MRM will be much harder to fix than originally thought.

Big Coal has been allowed to dump debris from mountaintop removal in streams for years, only made easier by a rule passed before President Bush left office in December 2008. The New York Times reports: "The rule gives coal companies a legal right to do what, in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances, with special permission from the government."

Reclamation and restoration projects have been underway since MRM started, but environmentalists feel the work done to restore ecosystems is not being carried out the way it should. Most of the time "restoration," for the coal companies, involves covering the site with cheap crushed rock instead of making sure there is good topsoil — which has much better qualities of absorption. Then there are the resulting overflowing streams and brooks, which create massive amounts of runoff not seen before. A small stream being filled with debris may change the ecosystem for species that live downstream in a larger area. Yale 360 says, "When those streams are destroyed, the effects are felt far beyond the immediate vicinity of the valley fill, and scientists say they are irreplaceable."

Scientists in Appalachia in West Virginia are finding that the techniques used in reclaiming and restoring the land are most often not good enough; coal companies choose the cheapest options as opposed to the best and most effective restoration efforts.

Scientists are saying one of the biggest problems with stream contamination is runoff, which can contain the metal selenium, too much of which may build up and cause reproductive and health problems. Dennis Lemly, a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, told Yale 360 "Before mountaintop removal, cases of severe selenium contamination were mainly limited to coal-fired power plant discharges. Now they’re appearing across Appalachia near mountaintop mines."

Without serious changes being made in the coal industry the damage done to streams will only get worse, and the effects may be much greater than we imagined.

SOURCES:Yale Environment 360; The New York Times; The Washington Post.