Scientists say mountaintop mining should be stopped

Kayford Mountain in West Virginia is the site of a coal-mining operation that blasted off the mountaintop.
Kayford Mountain in West Virginia is the site of a coal-mining operation that blasted off the mountaintop. (AP)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Mountaintop coal mining -- in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off and stream valleys buried under tons of rubble -- is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits to do it, a group of scientists said in a paper released Thursday.

The group, headed by a University of Maryland researcher, said it performed the most comprehensive study to date of the controversial practice, also known as "mountaintop removal."

Afterward, they did something that scientists usually don't: step beyond data-gathering to take a political stand.

"The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped," said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study's lead author.

The group's paper, published in the journal Science, was released in the same week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- which has been scrutinizing these mines -- angered environmentalists by supporting a new mine permit. The EPA said the Hobet 45 mine, in West Virginia, had made changes that would eliminate nearly 50 percent of the environmental impacts and protect 460 union mining jobs.

Palmer said the group's work did not echo the idea implicit in this EPA decision: that there could be a "good" mountaintop mine, whose environmental consequences were acceptable.

"The science is clearly against that," she said. Later in the day, the EPA issued a statement saying that the report "underscores EPA's own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts" of these mines.

Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association disputed the report's conclusions.

"It's just flat-out wrong," Hamilton said, adding that the "so-called lead scientists have a history of activism against mining."

The scientists rejected that, saying that they brought no bias to the topic and that their conclusions had been rigorously reviewed by other researchers.

Hamilton said that after a mountaintop mine is finished, the damage to nearby streams is usually "very short-term" -- not lasting more than 18 months.

But in their report, the scientists said the damage could last hundreds or even thousands of years.

"It obliterates stream ecosystems," said Emily Bernhardt, a professor of biology at Duke University and a co-author of the study. She said 1,500 miles of streams had been destroyed so far. "They've been wiped from the landscape."

Mountaintop mining occurs mainly in West Virginia and Kentucky, though there also are mines in far-Southwest Virginia and in Tennessee. At these sites, peaks are sheared off with heavy machinery and explosives, exposing the coal seams inside. Excess rock is used to fill steep Appalachian valleys, some with streams at the bottom, to the brim.

That jumbled rock is the problem, the scientists said. When rainwater falls on the filled-in valley, it trickles through the rubble and picks up pollutants off rocks that came from deep underground. The water emerges, they said, imbued with pollutants such as metals and chemicals called sulfates, which can be toxic to the insects and fish in small Appalachian streams.

"To us, it's like smoking and cancer. It's just so clear-cut" that streams below mine sites are left damaged, Palmer said.

The study also linked mountaintop mining to threats to human health, citing potentially toxic dust in the air, well water contaminated with chemicals from mines and fish tainted with toxic metals.

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