Burying Mountain Streams Under Mining Rubble

When is a stream no longer a stream?  In other words, if you fill it, will it still flow?

When mountaintop mining occurs the waste rock, rubble, dirt and other debris that results from blasting gets push off the cleared ridge-top and unceremoniously dumped down the mountainside. Not only does the hyrdology change due to the drastic topographic and vegetative alterations of the landscape, but the streams flowing down the mountainsides and through the valleys below disappear.  Burying waterways under tons of mining waste -- otherwise known as a 'valley fill' -- simply obliterates them. 

The question then is whether it is possible for the mining companies to mitigate the damage by restoring or re-engineering the destroyed waterways.  The common-sense response is absolutely not.  In both appearance in function, these former streams no longer exist after mining.  But in Appalachia, the mining companies routinely get the benefit of doubt from federal regulators, resulting time and time again in permits issued by the U.S. Corps of Engineers that allow rivers, creeks and streams to be filled with waste from mountaintop removal mining.

In a case playing out right now in federal court in West Virginia, environmental lawyers are taking on the coal industry over this very topic.  Scientists testified yesterday that there is little evidence to support the claim that streams buried by mountaintop mining can be rebuilt.  However, they say regulators routinely approve such projects anyway, through a fatally flawed formula and a review process that stifles public input.

Mark Brinson, an East Carolina University biologist, told the judge the Army Corps of Engineers' formula would not score well if a student submitted it in one of his classes. "I wouldn't even grade it," he said.

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University stream ecologist, said the corps' formula does not even spell out how it accounts for the core role of streams in the movement of water, energy and nutrients.  "I don't see how you can assess something as basic as hydrology without knowing anything about water flow," she said.

Brinson agreed.  "You need to be able to measure some of these functions, otherwise, you're just whistling in the dark," Brinson said.

Brinson and Bernhardt both testified that the corps' new formula is not nearly detailed enough to truly measure what is lost when headwater streams are buried, let alone decide if mine operator proposals to replace lost ecological functions will work.

Bernhardt said, "There isn't a great deal of evidence -- some would argue no evidence at all -- that recreating streams" will work on mountaintop removal sites. "The likelihood of achieving true biological re-creation is very limited."

Lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed the lawsuit to block a permit for two adjacent strip mines that would mountaintop-remove nearly 10 million tons of coal from a 900-acre area in Lilly Fork of Buffalo Creek near the town of Gilboa.  In the process, more than five miles of streams would be buried beneath 10 valley fills, according to permit documents. 

Company officials propose to offset this loss by restoring or creating nearly five miles of streams on a separate reclaimed mine site.  (The company already buried more than 500 feet of streams without the proper permit but Corps officials took no enforcement action, concluding that the violation did "not present an immediate threat to life or property.")

Let's hope the judge in this case listens to the scientists, not the mining engineers and agency 'experts', when deciding when a stream is no longer a stream thanks to mountaintop mining.