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.
An article in the journal Science, by a team of 12 ecologists, hydrologists, and engineers, provides the most comprehensive analysis so far of the damage done by the controversial mining practice.
The process involves shaving off up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountain peak – including ancient forests – to expose thin, but highly prized, seams of coal.
Margaret Palmer, an ecologist at the University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Science, who led the study, said the science left no excuse for the Obama administration not to ban the highly destructive practice.
"Scientists are not usually that comfortable coming out with policy recommendations," she said, "but this time the results were overwhelming."
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.
She said there were signs that contamination from the mining debris was spilling into drinking water and wells. The debris is already killing off fish. In heavily mined southern countries, 50- 60% of young fish were deformed because of high concentrations of selenium.
"That was quite an eye-opener," said Dennis Lemly, a biologist at Wake Forest University and one of the authors. He warned the fish population could soon be wiped out. "The deformed young fish – that is really the red flag. You can see right away that you are over a serious threshold."
Selenium concentrations in fish caught in some of West Virginia's rivers were twice as high as in other states that had declared them unfit for human consumption. West Virginia authorities issued a health warning – but not a ban.
"To put it quite bluntly, my jaw dropped because right away I saw concentrations that were far above toxic thresholds," added Lemly.
The authors also logged significant dangers to human health, including lung cancer, and chronic heart lung and kidney disease, as well as birth defects.
Today's report – reinforced by the rare demand from scientists for specific government action – deepens the pressure on the Obama administration from environmentalists and liberal supporters to ban mountaintop mining.
Obama administration officials had promised to toughen the lax environmental regulations of the George Bush era. But grassroots activists in West Virginia accuse the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of continuing to greenlight new projects – albeit with some additional restrictions on the mining companies.
Earlier this week, the EPA outraged activists by giving the go-ahead to two new mines. EPA officials argued that the new conditions imposed on the mining operator, Patriot Coal, would bury only three miles of mountain stream – instead of the six miles of waterways that would have been filled with debris under the company's original plan.
Until today's article, Mountaintop mining consequences, much of the research on the effects of mountaintop removal had been left to government scientists, and there was little understanding in the broader academic community of the sheer scale of destruction.
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.
At some sites, the mining companies have tried to rebuild the silhouette of the old mountain, or replant. But mostly they leave the mountain missing its crest.
In any event, there is no undoing the damage, and the scientists said the seriousness of the environmental and public health impacts compelled the EPA to ban mining.
"I think it is very clear. It is very compelling, and it would be a disservice to the people who live there to say we just have to study it more," said Michael Hendryx, a community medicine professor at the University of West Virginia. "The monetary costs of the industry in terms of premature mortality and other impacts far outweighs any benefits."