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Mountaintop Removal

“Pervasive and irreversible” Damage in Appalachia

As 2010 opened, the controversy over mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining burst into the news with 12 leading environmental scientists calling for a moratorium on all new mountaintop mining permits. 

Mountaintop removal is a form of mining in which the mountain overlying the coal is blasted away with explosives.  The resulting rubble is then bulldozed off the mountain, filling valleys and streams below.  This technique is being used extensively in Appalachia, where it has destroyed mature hardwood forests over an area of 2,000 square miles – an area larger than the state of Delaware.  According to the EPA, an estimated 2,000 miles of streams have been buried.

In January 8, 2010 article in the journal Science, the 12 scientists -- hydrologists, ecologists and engineers -- argue that “the preponderance of scientific evidence” documents “pervasive and irreversible” environmental and human impacts from MTR.  They conclude that “mitigation cannot compensate for losses."

MTR is generally described in terms of its environmental impacts:  deforestation, destruction of healthy headwater streams, contamination of downstream surface waters, and damage to fish and wildlife. 

Yet mountaintop removal is also a health issue for people.  It releases substances such as selenium, iron, and aluminum into surface waters, contributing to water quality degradation.  Selenium, the most widespread MTR-related pollutant, bioaccumulates in tissue, where it can cause health and reproductive problems in humans as well as wildlife. 

The Science article authors, who include several members of the National Academy of Sciences, call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stop issuing new MTR permits. While acknowledging that scientists usually refrain from making policy recommendations, the article’s lead author explained that the findings were “so clear-cut” and that the damage done by MTR appeared to be “irreversible.”

Ironically, the same week the article was published, the EPA announced what it called “a path forward” on two MTR mining operations in West Virginia.  In one case it gave a green light to a critical water permit; in the other, it agreed to continue discussions with a mining operator about developing a revised mining plan – one that, if accepted, would permit another MTR mining venture.

The Science report authors note that surface mining for coal in Appalachia is associated with severe health impacts in coal-producing communities, including elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease.

Curious to know what MTR looks like?  For close-up visuals, see the videos on Yale Environment 360

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