January 07, 2010
The article, published in Science, is written by a dozen influential scientists, including hydrologists, ecologists, and engineers.
"The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable," lead author Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science says in a press release. "Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes."
Mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by: JW Randolph.
The authors write that "the extensive tracts of deciduous forests destroyed by [mountain top mining and valley filling] support some of the highest biodiversity in North America, including several endangered species."
After the coal is reached, the blasted rock is pushed into adjacent valleys, burying and polluting streams. The contaminants filling the streams are able to travel long-distances through the steams, polluting important watersheds.
"The chemicals released into streams from valley fills contain a variety of ions and trace metals which are toxic or debilitating for many organisms, which explains why biodiversity is reduced below valley fills," says co-author Dr. Emily Bernhardt, of Duke University.
Reclamation efforts have proven unable to bring back forests to their natural state according to the scientists: "many reclaimed areas show little or no regrowth of woody vegetation and minimal carbon storage even after 15 years.
Not surprisingly the practice of mountaintop mining has severe health impacts on local communities, according to the scientists. Coal communities in the Appalachian region—where most of the mountaintop removal mining is taking place—have high rates of lung cancer, mortality, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease.
Landsat satellite data collected in 1987 (base image) and 2002 (place mouse over image for comparison) show the growth of the Hobet-21 mountaintop mine in the Mud River watershed of West Virginia. The mine expanded across thousands of acres and produced one of the state's longest valley fills when rock and dirt were placed into Connelly Branch. The center portion of the mine site had been partially reclaimed with grass (light green) as of 2002. [NASA images by Jesse Allen, based on data provided by the Global Land Cover Facility (GLCF).]
The scientists conclude that "mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses. Considering environmental impacts of [mountain top mining/valley filling], in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians may be compromised by mining activities, we conclude that [mountain top mining/valley filling] permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer-review and shown to remedy these problems."
"Now more than ever, we need a 21st century approach to fulfilling our nation's energy needs," adds lead author Dr. Palmer. "No longer can we risk human and environmental health in our never-ending search for inexpensive energy. We need to move beyond filling valleys with mountaintop mining waste and temporarily storing fly ash in containment ponds to a modern energy production process built upon sound science, environmental safety and economic common sense."
Palmer told Ken Ward Jr. of Coal Tatoo that the paper was not funded by any advocacy group, and Ward writes that the paper "underwent the most rigorous peer review by Science that they had ever seen".
Burning coal for energy-use is one of the world's largest sources of carbon dioxide leading to global climate change. Coal releases more carbon per unit than petroleum and natural gas.
The Obama Administration has pledged to make decisions based on sound science. At a press conference today regarding the peer-reviewed paper, head author Palmer said, "It is our hope that this will provide the science that the administration needs."
Citation: M. A. Palmer, E. S. Bernhardt, W. H. Schlesinger, K. N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M. S. Hendryx, A. D. Lemly, G. E. Likens, O. L. Loucks, M. E. Power, P. S. White, P. R. Wilcock. Mountaintop Mining Consequences. Science, Volume 327, January 8th, 2010. doi: 10.1126/science.1180543.
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