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Mountaintop Removal: Laying Waste to Streams and Forests

Photo credit: NRDC

This year, the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted against the environment 110 times. Included in these votes were measures to prevent the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) from introducing new water quality standards or enforcing old ones, and thwarting the agency’s efforts to protect streams from the impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, an environmentally devastating form of coal mining that involves blowing off the tops of mountains, has already leveled over 500 mountains and buried more than 1,200 miles of streams in the Appalachian Mountains.

An increasingly common method of coal mining mostly practiced in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia, MTR involves blasting away mountaintops to reach the seams of coal beneath. So far, MTR has removed 2.7 million acres of forest, and the EPA predicts that by 2012, 2,200 square miles of forests will be lost (along with their capacity to store 3.14 million tons of CO2 each year) and almost 2,000 miles of stream will be buried.

Central Appalachia supplies about 19% of the nation’s coal annually. Ironically, MTR became prevalent in the mid-1990s because the Clean Air Act’s emission standards were made more stringent. New restrictions on sulfur emissions resulted in a need for the low-sulfur coal found in the Central Appalachian coalfields. The market for low-sulfur coal, increased demand for electricity, and the development of heavy machinery made MTR a larger-scale way to mine coal that was quicker, cheaper, and required fewer workers than underground mining. MTR mining was also able to get at shallow coal reserves, sometimes only a few feet thick, that traditional underground mining could not access.

A dragline. Photo credit: Kelly Michals

MTR begins with the clearing of forests and the removal of topsoil. Explosives—equivalent to the power of one Hiroshima bomb each week—are then used with draglines, excavators up to 20 stories high, to blast and dig out the earth and expose the coal. Normally 600 to 800 feet of mountaintop are removed. A large mine can deforest over 10 square miles and generate 750 million cubic yards of waste. This waste—rocks, rubble and coal debris removed from atop the coal—which is called overburden, is bulldozed into nearby valleys. The valley’s headwater streams (small tributaries that lead to larger rivers) are buried under hundreds to thousands of feet of this fill.

Photo credit: Scott Gawne

The rivers and streams of the southern and central Appalachians comprise the most biologically diverse freshwater system in North America, providing habitat and spawning grounds for countless aquatic species, and supporting rich downstream ecosystems. The region’s headwater streams flow into major rivers such as the Potomac, Susquehanna and Ohio, which provide drinking water for tens of millions of people.

Filling the valleys and burying the streams cuts off water flow, alters the landscape, causes flooding, disrupts ecosystem functions, and releases sediment, heavy metals and toxins into the water. According to the EPA, over 63% of the streams in coalfields have been “impaired” by heavy metals and toxic chemicals such as calcium, magnesium, total dissolved solids, and manganese. Coal wastes also produce sulfate, which is harmful to plants and other organisms and can lead to eutrophication of streams and water bodies.  Some West Virginia streams have shown 30 to 40 fold increases in sulfate. Selenium, a chemical that is toxic to humans and wildlife has been found downstream from mines at over 15 times the toxic threshold. In addition, mined areas produce more polluted runoff during storms because the soil has been compacted by heavy machinery and there is little vegetation to soak up the water. Research by Dr. Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory 
at the University of Maryland, shows that the cumulative effect of these stressors is the biological impairment of streams and their communities.

Before coal goes to market, it is usually washed to separate it from the rocks and soil and reduce its sulfur content. The process produces enormous amounts of liquid waste, called sludge or slurry, which is held in impoundments often built onsite.

Slurry pond

These slurry ponds, usually hidden from public view, can store billions of gallons of waste contaminated with the carcinogenic chemicals used in coal processing and toxic heavy metals found in coal such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium and nickel. The impoundment dams can and do fail. In 1972, a dam failure in Buffalo Creek, W. VA resulted in the death of 125 people. A Martin County, KY impoundment owned by Massey Energy broke in 2000, releasing 306 million gallons of slurry, and contaminating over 75 miles of stream from Kentucky to West Virginia. All aquatic creatures died, property was damaged, homes were rendered uninhabitable, and the drinking water of ten counties was tainted.  The pollution flowed from Coldwater Creek to Big Sandy River and eventually to the Ohio River.

Martin County sludge spill. Photo credit: Dave Cooper

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) regulating the environmental impacts of coal mining requires that MTR mining areas be restored after mining is complete. Landscapes are regraded and recontoured, a topsoil substitute is added, and the area is reseeded; but even if the original topsoil is kept and reused, its composition has been altered and impaired. As a result, the native forest habitat can rarely be recreated, and the reclaimed areas where trees, non-woody plants, and grasses do grow contain limited biodiversity, sometimes only one or two species, and store much less CO2 than unspoiled forests. According to the EPA, although 92% of MTR mined land in the Appalachians was once forest, about half will end up being “biologically improverished.” Moreover, the forest areas that are left become fragmented, altering habitats and putting wildlife at risk.

Attempts to return streams to their pre-mined conditions are also ineffective. The restored stream may have similar dimensions to the original, but it is virtually impossible to recreate a stream’s original ecological conditions with its natural hydrology and ecosystem functions. In fact, according to the EPA, no restoration efforts have ever recreated a functioning headwater stream on mined or filled areas. Aquatic habitats, once contaminated with selenium, are almost impossible to restore. And even after reclamation, groundwater sampled from wells have higher levels of mine-related chemicals than well water from areas without mines.

The SMCRA and the Clean Water Act (CWA) administered by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) oversee MTR mining. While the CWA prohibits the discharge of pollution into the waters of the United States without a permit, the ACOE is allowed to issue permits for the discharge of “dredged or fill material” (usually from construction) into water bodies. In 2002, the Bush administration redefined mining waste as “fill,” thus allowing it to be permitted by the ACOE and essentially legalizing the dumping of MTR waste into waterways.

Toxic runoff from valley fill in Eastern KY. Photo credit:

According to Palmer, there have been numerous lawsuits by environmental advocacy groups challenging this permitting.

On July 21, 2011, the EPA released its final guidance on Appalachian MTR coal mining. Though not legally binding, the guidance urges agency officials and state regulators to make more consistent, effective and timely reviews of MTR mining with respect to CWA guidelines. The guidelines state that no discharge of dredged or fill material may be permitted if the nation’s waters would be “significantly degraded,” if it causes or contributes to violations of a state’s water quality standard, or “if a practicable alternative exists that is less damaging to the aquatic environment.” Mining industry groups called the guidance a “jobs destroyer,” while MTR opponents were disappointed that it wasn’t more forceful.

The battle over MTR continues. As Congress left for summer vacation, it was still debating the FY 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill (H.R.2584) which would slash funding to the EPA and forbid it to use any funds to enforce certain MTR mining regulations. Meanwhile environmental groups and concerned citizens are advocating for the passage of the Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) that would exclude surface mining waste from the definition of “fill material;” and The Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310) which would redefine fill material to exclude polluted waste discharged into the water. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other MTR opponents are urging banks not to fund MTR mining.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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