Laurel Branch Hollow was once a small West Virginia mountain valley, with steep, forested hillsides and a stream that, depending on the season and the rains, flowed or trickled down into the Mud River about 200 yards below. The stream teemed with microbes and insect life, and each spring it became a sumptuous buffet for the birds, fish, and amphibians in the valley.
But over the past decade, the Hobet 21 mountaintop removal coal mining operation has obliterated 25 square miles of surrounding highlands. From the air, the mine is a 10-mile-long, mottled gray blotch among the green, crisscrossed by trucks and earth movers, appended by black lakes of coal sludge.
The Caudill family has owned a house at the mouth of the hollow since the early 1900s. Many of their neighbors left, but the Caudills fought and blocked an attempt by Hobet to force them to sell their property. Unfazed, the mining operation simply steered around their land, and dumped a mountain's worth of rocky debris into the Laurel Branch up to their property line.
When mountains are demolished with explosives to harvest their coal seams, the millions of tons of crushed shale, sandstone, and coal detritus have to go somewhere, and the most convenient spots are nearby valleys. Mining operations clear-cut the hillsides and literally "fill" mountain hollows to the brim - and sometimes higher - with rocky debris. At the mouth of the hollow, the outer edge of the fill is typically engineered into a towering wall resembling a dam.
As I visited Laurel Branch recently with family members Anita Miller and her mother, Lorene Caudill, two bulldozers crawled back and forth over the peak more than 200 feet above us, sculpting it into a steep, three-tiered sloping form. When it can reach no higher, the coal company will seed the slope with grass and move on. But the valley fill's impact on the environment will last much, much longer.
Of all the environmental problems caused by mountaintop projects - decapitated peaks, deforestation, the significant carbon footprint - scientists have found that valley fills do the most damage because they destroy headwater streams and surrounding forests, which are crucial to the workings of mountain ecosystems.
"There used to be pine trees, and it was a very pretty shaded area. There was a nice trail that went up the hollow and I used to take my granddaughter up there and we'd go ginsenging [harvesting ginseng roots, an Appalachian custom] on up the hill," says Miller, whose grandfather built the family homestead in 1920. "She really misses not being able to do that. She said, ‘Can't we go someplace else? There's no hills to climb there.'"
The remaining length of Laurel Branch, running past the house into the river, has become a sluice for contamination: As rainwater runs down Hobet 21's dismantled mountainsides and fills, it picks up minerals and pollutants that damage delicate stream chemistry for miles downstream. Laurel Branch and multiple valley fills like it feed the Mud River, which is heavily contaminated with selenium, a heavy metal that works its way up through the food chain in ever-greater concentrations. One study has associated it with deformities - including curved spines and two eyes on one side of the head - found in fish larvae in a downstream reservoir.
When the Obama administration announced last month it would toughen its oversight of mountaintop removal rather than ban it or otherwise crack down, environmental groups that had hoped for decisive action were outraged. In West Virginia, local activists launched protests employing civil disobedience. Actress Darryl Hannah and NASA scientist James Hansen, an outspoken advocate of immediate action to address global warming, were among 31 people arrested at one anti-mountaintop protest in Sundial, W.Va.
But the scientific picture of mountaintop removal now emerging - from, among other things, the study of valley fills like the one in Laurel Branch -is, in its way, far more dramatic than any protest. The spread of mountaintop removal through central Appalachia in the past 15 years has given scientists the opportunity to study environmental destruction on a previously unthinkable scale: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by 2013 a forested area the size of Delaware will have been destroyed and that more than 1,200 miles of streams have already been severely damaged. As that footprint has grown, so has the evidence, outlined in peer-reviewed scientific papers and ongoing investigations, showing that the damage is far more extensive than previously understood.
The Obama administration's approach puts pressure on coal companies to compromise with regulators to limit some of the more egregious impacts of mountaintop removal. That may have some effect, but it will be limited by the government's balkanized regulatory scheme for coal mining, which dates to the 1970s and never contemplated the vast damage that results when mountains are demolished.
In the case of valley fills, for example, only the EPA has ecosystem-wide responsibility through the Clean Water Act which governs what may be dumped in streams and waterways. But the agency's power is circumscribed; it shares authority with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which actually grants the dumping permits and has taken a much more sympathetic view of the practice. The Interior Department, meanwhile, oversees mountaintop projects via another law, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Nevertheless, the White House is betting that mountaintop mining can be managed and the damage ultimately repaired. But the science indicates that such an incremental approach may never be effective. Mountaintop removal does damage on both vast and microscopic scales, from hydrological changes over hundreds of square miles to effects on the life cycles of the tiniest stream microbes. Overseeing the repair of such damage is beyond the capabilities of any government agency; the most serious impacts - to streams - may be all but impossible to fix.
Margaret Palmer, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, was part of a team of scientists that compiled a comprehensive database of 37,000 U.S. river and stream restoration projects. She found no record of any mining-related stream-building project that could be called ecologically successful.
"Can you create these streams de novo, from scratch? There's no evidence," says Palmer, who testified on behalf of West Virginia environmental groups in a suit faulting the Army Corps of Engineers' stream management. "Over thousands of years, I think you could do it. You have to have erosion of the land, get the hydrology back. I'm a restoration ecologist - I hope it can be done. But given how much damage they've done, right now I don't think so."
Take a big step back for a moment. Mountain ecosystems developed over millions of years in tandem with evolving patterns of snow and rainfall. On an unspoiled mountain, some rain is immediately absorbed by the soil, while the remainder trickles into stream beds and eventually flows into larger waterways. Between rainfalls, mountain soil acts as a kind of sponge: Some of its water is taken up by trees and other plants, some gradually released into streams. This system creates a steady flow in the spring and summer that sustains entire watersheds and the surrounding ecosystems that depend on them.
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Surface mining destroys those ancient interrelationships and disrupts them for many miles around. Keith Eshleman, a scientist at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Studies Appalachian Laboratory, runs an ongoing study on the impact of strip mine sites on the mountains of western Maryland. Using satellite imagery and data collected in the field, Eshleman and other scientists have documented significant changes in hydrology and the ecosystem functioning on sites that have been reclaimed - i.e., restored to the satisfaction of government agencies, typically by bulldozing the mined land smooth and replanting it with grass.
Eshleman took me out to one of his Maryland study sites, a reclaimed mine on Big Savage Mountain he calls the "site from hell." It's not a mountaintop removal site but a former highwall mine: One slope had been vertically stripped away and the coal mined in the early part of the decade. Like many reclaimed sites, it's now mostly pastureland. Eshleman and his colleagues monitor runoff from the site with a small catch basin near the bottom. It's about 10 feet across, with an attached depth gauge and a flume emptying onto a small valley fill. Their observations show there is a lot more runoff and erosion from the mine than from an unspoiled mountainside or sites that are more carefully reclaimed.
This isn't surprising, since there is little vegetation and no topsoil - instead, mining companies use crushed rock for reclamation, which doesn't absorb much water. In mountain streams, there is a steady flow that swells during rains; in this system, there is barely any steady flow, but rather sudden, extreme pulses during storms. During a recent three-inch downpour, for instance, the catch basin filled up and briefly overflowed. Loose rocks, sand and other signs of recent erosion were still visible up and down the reclamation site. The gauge showed that of 90 millimeters of water that fell, 60 mm - or two thirds - ran off; on forested mountainsides, the figure is typically less than half.
This phenomenon is one source of the frequent flash floods near mine sites throughout Appalachia and is a serious safety risk for nearby communities. Eshleman and his colleagues recently expanded their study area to include mountaintop removal areas of West Virginia. They expect the findings will be similar to those from the Maryland sites.
The environmental impacts of massive alterations in water flow and the loss of soil and vegetation can be catastrophic for the carbon and nitrogen cycles and other basic functions that sustain life. A 2008 paper by Eshleman and several colleagues found many signs of impaired ecosystem health at reclaimed strip mines, including low levels of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. "Currently the goal of mine reclamation is simply the establishment of permanent vegetative cover," the authors wrote. "This approach is shortsighted and does not take into account the importance of ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling nor the potentially harmful conditions created, like high soil and stream temperatures. As a result, recovery of comparable ecosystem function will take decades to centuries."
Some scientists say that those problems are, at least theoretically, manageable. "Reclamation does not fully restore the natural communities and processes that are lost when land is mined for coal; but, when done right, it can establish conditions that allow many of those communities and processes to return to the mined landscape over time," Carl Zipper, a professor of environmental science at Virginia Tech, wrote in an email exchange with me. Zipper runs the Powell River Project, which researches and tests reclamation techniques (and is funded largely by coal interests).
The problem, however, is that "good" reclamation is expensive, and mining operations that prefer to do it on the cheap outnumber those willing to spend the necessary time and money. Federal law requires that a mined-out site be restored to the "approximate original contour" and planted with "a diverse, effective, and permanent vegetative cover." But it's virtually impossible to rebuild many mountain peaks, so "approximate" is interpreted quite liberally. Replanting is similarly erratic - complete reforestation is rare; many sites end up as grassy pastures. Those problems are straightforward compared to those that mining poses for streams. The "intermittent and ephemeral" valley streams appear and disappear with the seasons and rains. But they are the headwaters for steady-running "perennial" streams below, and the foundation for the broader forest ecosystem: most notably a breeding ground for insects that provide the biomass to sustain birds and other animal life. When those streams are destroyed, the effects are felt far beyond the immediate vicinity of the valley fill, and scientists say they are irreplaceable.
Below Eshleman's basin, repeated torrents had cut a deepening rut into the small valley fill. The fill ended abruptly at the trees where the remaining natural stream bed sat, dry. "This is their ‘stream,'" Eshelman said. "This is meant to replace the native stream that was here. Does this look like a mountain stream to you?"
This is a typical problem on mountaintop removal sites. In most cases, Margaret Palmer says, mining drainage ditches are repurposed as streams to move water across reclaimed areas. "In fact, they have created a gutter or a ditch," she says. "If you look at what organisms are in it, it's not similar at all to natural streams."
Moreover, when stream ecosystems are destroyed, trouble flows downstream with the runoff. Scientists at the EPA Freshwater Biology Lab in Wheeling, W.Va., began studying the downstream effects of valley fills in the early 2000s as part of a major, court-ordered environmental impact assessment of mountaintop mining. Their 2008 paper on the topic drew the attention of regulators, coal companies, and scientists because it demonstrated that streams outside of mine sites suffer from pollution, altered chemistry, and biological damage. "Our results indicate that [mountaintop mining] is strongly related to downstream biological impairment," the study said.
The EPA scientists found that an unusually high concentration of ions from dissolved metals and sulfates from mine sites was killing off entire populations of mayflies, an important indicator of broader ecosystem health. "What was alarming to us is in some of these streams we were losing the whole group of mayflies," says Greg Pond, the lead scientist on the study. "Of the eight to 10 species you'll find in a small sample, often, we were getting only one or zero." Other studies have shown that such chemical changes linger on for decades, meaning the mayflies and other affected species won't come back without major intervention. The EPA study concluded that the ecological damage was bad enough to trigger a provision of the Clean Water Act requiring the state to take steps to monitor and reduce the pollution, though that may not be sufficient for the wildlife to recover.
At the Laurel Branch Hollow valley fill, a rectangular pond filters sediment and chemically treats the water running off before it pours into the remaining stream bed and then the Mud River. Studies have shown, however, that the ponds do an incomplete job of filtering chemicals, and the Mud River has been especially hard hit.
The most ubiquitous form of downstream contamination may be the heavy metal selenium, a common element associated with coal seams. Selenium is an essential nutrient in small amounts, but it bioaccumulates in tissue, and in high enough concentrations can cause health and reproductive problems in wildlife and humans. In 2003, the EPA's environmental impact assessment found significant elevations of selenium downstream from valley fills.
The Mud River, which wends through the Hobet 21 site, has become notorious for its high selenium levels. A. Dennis Lemly, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who specializes in selenium contamination, found very high selenium levels in the Upper Mud River reservoir, about 10 miles downstream from the Caudill home, and documented the deformities among bluegill fish larvae. In 2007 the state issued an advisory telling people to limit their consumption of fish from the reservoir. After the state filed suit, Hobet agreed to pay $3.5 million to the state and to take steps to reduce selenium leaching from its operations.
Before mountaintop removal, cases of severe selenium contamination were mainly limited to coal-fired power plant discharges. Now they're appearing across Appalachia near mountaintop mines, says Lemly, who recently wrote a report outlining his findings for an environmental group challenging mountaintop removal.
Lemly believes that without major changes, the Mud's contaminated fish populations may simply collapse. "In case of the Mud River, those [fish populations] are quite a few miles downstream of the mining operations - 20 to 30 miles or more," he says. "That's a long way. Selenium just moves with the water."