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Science blows the top off mountaintop removal mining

January 8th, 2010 · 4 Comments

This cross-post from DWG provides an excellent perspective on the heavily peer-reviewed study, just published in Science magazine, that provides strong material about the serious health (environmental and human) implications of Mountain Top Removal (MTR).  For links to numerous other discussions, see here.

The rapacious polluters in the coal industry are celebrating. The approval of a new permit for a mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia by the Environmental Protection Agency was music to their ears.

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Coal stocks have heated up this week as a big cold snap in the U.S. fueled hopes for greater demand and the U.S. government appeared to shift to a more accommodating regulatory stand on mountaintop mining.

The Dow Jones U.S. Coal Total Stock Market Index is up 13% so far this week, while coal futures touched 11-month highs.


Perhaps they popped their corks too soon.

In case you missed it, the “more accommodating regulatory stand” refers to the decision this week by the EPA to approve a new permit for a mountaintop removal mine and negotiations on possibly dropping a hold on another site.

On the regulatory front, Patriot Coal said Wednesday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized its evaluation process and issued a permit for its Hobet 45 mountaintop mining complex under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also said it would continue discussions with Arch Coal Inc. about lifting a halt on another mountaintop permit issued in late 2009.

When the EPA halted the permit on Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1. mine – the largest mountaintop coal mine in Appalachia – it marked the first time in 37 years that regulators used their power to stop a previously issued permit.


The EPA announcement can be found here.

And now for some “good”* news.

[*Good news in the sense of important and valuable information.]

The disappointing decision to approve a new mountaintop removal mining site in West Virginia will be tempered by the publication of an extensive scientific study of the consequences of this destructive practice. The article, appearing in the January 8 edition of Science is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is highest profile publication to document the toxic effects of mountaintop removal mining. Science is unparalleled in prestige among American scientific journals. Second, the research team made a strong policy recommendation. The press release announcing the publication contained this bombshell:

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings and new data, a group of the nation’s leading environmental scientists are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop mining permits.

Make no mistake. This is big news. The research project collected impressive data. However, the real news is that the scientists made a policy recommendation. Scientists are often pressured to make translation statements about findings to highlight the significance of their work. However, when the implications impact public policy and conflict with corporate interests, then the proverbial crap hits the fan. The bigger the vested economic interest, the bigger the controversy. Just think about the link between tobacco and cancer or the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The findings are significant.

The paper, which analyzed findings from previous studies along with new water-quality data from West Virginia, outlined environmental degradation at mining sites and downstream, “including harmful consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.”

The authors also described health effects associated with surface mining for coal in the Appalachian region where most of this mining takes place. The problems include elevated death rates, lung cancer and kidney disease in coal-producing communities.

The EPA said in a statement Thursday that the article “underscores EPA’s own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts that result from mountaintop mining operations.”


There are three major empirical contributions of the paper.

  1. The authors conducted extensive sampling of water quality affects near surface mining sites and downstream, finding high levels of toxic metals.
  1. The authors conducted an analysis of health data in the communities near mountaintop mining sites and found high rates of mortality and specific disease morbidity.
  1. The authors examined water quality and biodiversity in inactive mining sites with completed “reclamation” by mine operators and found lasting degradation.

The media has picked up on this story because the scientists recommended a moratorium on approval of any new permits. However, the real story is the EPA failed to do their job. The EPA failed miserably, even epically, in their protection of the public.

Take a look at the contributions of the Science article. Although the authors did a more comprehensive analysis of water, soil, and biological toxicity than previous published studies, there is enough published data to have anticipated the findings without taking a single new sample. In fact, there are many published and unpublished technical reports on the EPA website. The EPA did not need new data. Here are the conclusions from a published study conducted by EPA investigators in 2008.

  1. Ninety-three percent of the mined streams and none of the unmined streams were impaired using the preferred genus-level GLIMPSS, indicating the strength of the association.
  1. The relationship between MTM and biological impairment has been con?rmed by other investigators working in the Central Appalachians of West Virginia and Kentucky, indicating consistency.
  1. Because our unmined sites were not impaired and were selected to be typical of least disturbed reference sites, these sites are representative of premining conditions in the watershed. We think it is reasonable to conclude that mining disturbance preceded the observed biological change (temporality).
  1. Biological condition degraded in response to increasing mining disturbance, as measured by mining-related water-quality parameters, indicating dose response.
  1. The premise that MTM causes downstream biological degradation is plausible given the wholesale landscape changes, hydrological alterations, and potential toxicants that are discharged. For example, elevated ionic strength can impair osmoregulation, which offers a plausible mechanism of impairment to macroinvertebrates.
  1. Similar stressors cause similar effects to those found here (analogy). For example, diverse human activities (urbanization, oil- and gas-well drilling, road salting) that produce elevated ionic strength or landscape disturbance also are correlated with downstream impairment in empirical studies, and experimental toxicity testing has con?rmed the toxicity of mining-related component ions.

The health data analyzed in the Science report is available in the public health records, but never examined by the EPA. The smoking gun related to the toxic effects of mountaintop removal mining has been ignored for decades. To be fair, many of the cumulative effects of toxic exposure take years, if not decades, to manifest themselves. Much of that blame falls on the Bush EPA because it approved a drastic expansion of the practice without looking at the impact. However, the Clinton EPA sided with the industry in ruling that mountaintop removal mining did not fall under the Clean Water Act. There should have been sufficient exposure data by the 1990’s to scrutinize health data proximal to surface mining sites. [The Obama EPA reversed the Clinton era decision and now clearly indicates that the mountaintop removal mining is subject to the Clean Water Act. This is now clearly stated on the EPA site.

Mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), including discharges of pollutants to streams from valley fills (CWA Section 402) and the valley fill itself where the rock and dirt is placed in streams and wetlands (CWA Section 404).

Reclamation of mountaintop removal mining sites is a joke. It is a complete travesty. It is a violation of the public trust. So why is this publication one of the few systematic efforts to examine reclamation?

Reclamation of surface mining sites is regulated by the SURFACE MINING CONTROL AND RECLAMATION ACT OF 1977. Let me explain what is required. The mining companies pay into a fund (a tiny tax on extracted volume). This fund is then used to provide grants to states to study and implement innovative reclamation of the scorched earth practices of the mining companies. The mining companies also have some limited cosmetic requirements which basically translate into regrading the mining site to approximate some of the contours, stabilize the formations, and plant some vegetation. To give you some idea of how poorly regulated reclamation efforts have been, the mining companies typically use non-native grasses as their vegetative cover material. I assume I need not remind you of the destructive effects of the introduction of non-native plants and wildlife on an ecosystem.

Again, the scientists did the EPA’s job by systematically cataloging the abysmal failure of mining company reclamation efforts.

The article described river and forest systems that have been disrupted well downstream from the original dumping spot of mining debris. It also said there was virtually no chance of restoring mountain, forests or streams once the mining companies have moved on to new seams.

There is a lot of evidence suggesting that there is significant degradation, and there just isn’t the evidence at all that they can reverse this,” said Emily Bernhardt, an environmental biologist at Duke University, who was another co-author.


The EPA failed the public trust by never systematically studying reclamation efforts and strengthening regulations. There is no excuse for this lapse. None.

The press thinks it is the policy recommendation by the scientists that is the most newsworthy element of this story. Almost every lede raises the issue.

Mountaintop mining should be banned for causing vast and permanent destruction to US environment and exposing its people to serious health consequences such as birth defects, a new study says today.

The Guardian

WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) – A group of scientists on Thursday called on the U.S. government to stop issuing new permits for mountaintop coal mining, citing research that finds the practice is damaging to the environment and human health.


Reporting from Washington – Mountaintop coal mining, which involves blowing up mountain peaks to get access to coal seams below, should be halted immediately because of growing evidence of its environmental and health threats, scientists urged Thursday in the journal Science.

LA Times

The press missed the real story. The EPA has not been doing its job.  It took a bunch of scientists with no government funding to study the effects of mountaintop removal mining to raise broader awareness of its dangers. And let’s not forget the scope of the problem.

As many as 500 mountaintops across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have already been replaced by dry flat plateau, and 1,200 mountain streams have been buried beneath dumped rock and dirt. By 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 2,200 square miles of Appalachian forest will disappear.


In response to the findings, the thugs in the mining industry are regurgitating the usual talking points.

An mining industry spokeswoman dismissed the report as “an advocacy piece” and said the end of mountaintop coal mining would mean job losses and higher electricity rates.

National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said the industry’s environmental practices are sound and the study’s conclusions are faulty.

“It attempts to draw correlations that should not be made,” Raulston said. “It’s really an advocacy piece intended to end mountaintop mining, which would put thousands of people out of work and hurt our ability to provide affordable electricity.”

The real question is how the Obama EPA will react to the report. Ignorance of the dangers posed by mountaintop removal is no longer a viable excuse for inaction.

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Tags: business practice · coal · Energy · environmental · government energy policy · pollution

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adrian // Jan 8, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Good to know scientists are against this. Mining by blasting mountains does not make sense. All this is for coal which is not a renewable energy. Move to green and save the earth.

  • 2 The Humane Society’s inhumanity … and tunnel vision // Mar 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    […] incredibly destructive practice of mountain-top removal to continue unabated, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence as to MTR’s destructiveness. Simply put, the Humane Society is wearing blinders when it comes to its thinking about and […]

  • 3 Just as EPA doesn’t like getting dumped on, neither do West Virginians … // Sep 13, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    […] This, of course, is referring to the damage in the ongoing War on Appalachia politely called “mountain-top removal” and the “fill” from these operations that are dumped in Appalachia’s valleys and streams w…. […]

  • 4 PNC Bank will no longer fund mountain top removal : Merry Python // Nov 10, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    […] laws against the total destruction of public waters and land, after scientists revealed the full extent of the immoral practice. Now, PNC Bank will neither fund MTR projects nor make loans to companies […]