Mountains, Mining and Mayflies

When I started my environmental career working as a grassroots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia, one of my favorite parts of the job involved occasionally accompanying CBF educators on canoe trips to teach students and teachers the key role that rivers play in the Bay ecosystem.  Wherever we were on the watershed -- floating on rivers in the Blue Ridge foothills, through Piedmont farmland, or the marshy Tidewater coastal plain -- we always made stops along the way so the kids could "count critters".  The more aquatic insects we found, the healthier the stream.  And catching mayflies was the equivalent of panning for gold.

Image removed. / CC BY-ND 2.0

There are over 600 species of these little winged creatures -- they go by names like "dayfly", "shadfly", "Green Bay Flies", "lake fly", "fishfly," "midgee", "June bug", and "Canadian Soldier."  No matter what you call them, an abundance of mayflies indicates good water quality.  If the water is clean enough to be crawling with these insects, you'll find fish because mayflies make for tasty fish food.

Now, it seems, that federal environmental officials are finally starting to pay attention to the importance of these critters.  And that has the coal mining industry moaning that mayfiles may seal the fate of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. 

It's about time.

This extreme form of strip mining has already polluted or obliterated more than 1,200 miles of streams throughout Appalachia.  That's what happens when, after blasting to expose thin seams of coal, companies use giant earth-movers to dump tons of "overburden" -- dirt, rock, rubble -- over the side of the mountain and into waterways coursing through the valleys below.  For every ton of coal extracted, another 20 - 25 tons of mining waste is disposed of in these so-called valley fills.  That's millions of tons of waste burying Appalachian streams or polluting them with dissolved metals from the debris -- a toxic stew for mayflies.

Mining companies are furious that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for the first time ever, is finally recognizing that as the mayfly goes, so goes the stream.  In fact, for over a decade the agency has documented the damage inflicted by mining on mayflies, which hatch in streams and grow to a quarter-inch to more than an inch long.  In an effort to safeguard this vital aquatic bug, EPA is requiring that companies seeking mining permits demonstrate that their operations won't harm the insect's habitat.

Specifically, the agency has begun using "conductivity" -- the amount of electricity that can pass through water -- as a key indicator of adverse water quality impacts in its review of pending mountaintop removal permits.  When rainwater or runoff flows into waterways downstream from mining sites, the dissolved solids from the material dumped in the valley fills can increase conductivity.  Higher conductivity can cause a range of adverse water quality impacts, such as algael blooms, which are bad for mayflies, as well as for other aquatic species up and down the food chain.  So whether it's the destruction of streams by burying them under tons of rubble or polluting them with toxic waste, mountaintop removal can wipe out all the critters and fish that live in those waterways.

"The future of mountaintop mining looks bleak," according to Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners LLC.  "Ripping off mountaintops gets cheap clean coal, but there's no way to do it without environmental impacts."

Despite industry's doomsday warnings, pitting mayflies versus miners doesn't hold water.  That's because curtailing mountaintop removal won't just benefit mayflies, it also will mean more coal must be extracted through traditional methods such as undergound mining, which is less ecologically damaging and more labor intensive. 

So, long live the mayflies, the mark of clean streams in the Appalachian Mountains.