How does mountaintop removal affect the environment?
Mountaintop Removal is occurring right at the heart of one of the nations main hotspots of biological diversity. According to the Nature Conservancy, the mountain region including southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee contains some of the highest levels of biological diversity in the nation. This region is also at the headwaters of the drinking water supplies of many US cities. The maps below show hotspots of biodiversity based on a rarity-weighted index biological diversity produced by the Nature Conservancy, as well as the major river systems with headwaters in the Appalachian coalfields.
Unfortunately, there is little information on the cumulative impacts of mountaintop removal because the federal agencies that are charged with regulating coal mining have refused to track the overall extent and impacts of mountaintop removal. The one attempt at acomprehensive analysis of MTR by government agencies was presented in a multi-agency Environmental Impact Statement that was completed in 2003. This effort was initiated in the late 90s, but the focus of the EIS was revised after the White House changed hands in 2001. According to the Charleston Gazette:
When it formally kicked off the project in February 1999, the EPA said the goal was to consider developing agency policies to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable the adverse environmental effects of mountaintop removal. By October 2001, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Steven J. Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, had ordered the project refocused toward centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting.
Cindy Tibbot, a FWS biologist involved in the EIS process, was one of many agency scientists who expressed outrage about Griles directive, stating in an internal memo:
Its hard to stay quiet about this when I really believe were doing the public and the heart of the Clean Water Act a great disservice.
As Tibbot put it, the only alternatives offered in Griles proposed EIS would be:
alternative locations to house the rubber stamp that issues the [mining] permits.
While the EIS did compile a lot of disparate information on the effects and extent of MTR, the analysis was based on mining permit maps. According to satellite analysis done by Michael Shank at the TAGIS center of the West Virginia DEP, however, those permit maps are underestimating the extent of valley fill in 6 West Virginia coal counties by about 40%. Thus, the entire EIS is based on verifiably faulty data.
Despite its many flaws, however, the multi-agency environmental impact statement did provide some useful information on the extent and impacts of mountaintop removal. Here are some of the impacts and concerns expressed in the final EPA report:
More than 7 percent of Appalachian forests have been cut down and more than 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried or polluted between 1985 and 2001.
Over 1000 miles of streams have been permitted to be buried in valley fills. (for scale, this is a greater distance than the length of the entire Ohio River).
Mountaintop removal mining, if it continues unabated, will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres by the end of the decade-an area the size of Delaware-with a concomitant severe impact on fish, wildlife, and bird species, not to mention a devastating effect on many neighboring communities.
800+ square miles of mountains are estimated to be already destroyed. (this is equal to a one-quarter mile wide swath of destruction from New York to San Francisco - it is also significantly underestimated).
Other quotes from the 2003 report include:
â€¦ studies found that the natural return of forests to mountaintop mines reclaimed with grasses under hay and pasture or wildlife post-mining land uses occurs very slowly. Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years.
Because it is difficult to intercept groundwater flow, it is difficult to reconstruct free flowing streams at mountaintop removal sites.
Stream chemistry monitoring efforts show significant increases in conductivity, hardness, sulfate, and selenium concentrations downstream of [mountaintop removal] operations.