Scientist Warns of "Permanent Damage" to Appalachia Ecosystem

"You lose whole streams . . . the forest ecosystem."

Coal company settling ponds, like this one in Boone County, West Virginia, are designed to treat polluted water.
Photograph: Photo by Matt Eich.

As More reports in its April 2010 profile of embattled West Virginia activist Maria Gunnoe, tensions are running high in Appalachia over a controversial mining practice called mountaintop removal. We asked Margaret Palmer, a stream-restoration expert from the University of Maryland and the lead author of a new study of the practice published in Science magazine this past January, for her take on the consequences of mountaintop-removal mining. 

Can you describe the environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal mining?

You lose whole streams, the tops of mountains and the forest ecosystem. Entire streams are buried with valley fill (the remnants of coal debris, dirt and rocks that are blasted off the mountaintops). The Appalachian forests have the highest biodiversity of salamanders in the world—and that’s just one example. There’s no evidence that deciduous trees, the hardwoods, grow back. The really heavy equipment used in mountaintop mining—some of the giant bulldozer-like structures are 40 stories high—compacts the rocks and dirt so much that water cannot infiltrate the soil.

Below the valley fills, contaminants like selenium and sulfate pollute the water at levels that can cause deformities in fish and kill off whole groups of aquatic insects. People who live nearby suffer from higher rates of respiratory disease, lung cancers and kidney disease. It’s not a pretty picture. The concentrations of those contaminants do not decrease over time. Studies have looked at 60-year-old mine sites that are still leaching material.

Do waste-collecting "settling ponds" work?
Settling ponds collect the worst waste and sludge material during the mining process, then are filled in afterward. But there’s a much higher flood risk during intense rainstorms when you have a mountaintop operation going on. The houses below are at great risk from both the floodwater and the toxic material. Then basically the houses and everything below that are at great risk because of both the flood and the material that’s in the water.

What do you want our readers to take away from our talk?
The damage that’s being done is permanent. There are no known ways to reverse the process and to ensure clean water below sites. Science has never been clearer on an environmental issue. It is crystal clear. There’s not even a question. That’s how you could get 12 scientists, some of whom didn’t even know each other, to independently review a body of evidence and all come to the same conclusion: that the only way to deal with this is to stop this practice.

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