Mountaintop Removal Threatens Our Water


Coal companies like Massey Energy continue to violate federal and state water quality laws -- to the tune of over 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act and surface mining laws in West Virginia alone.  It appears that Massey's operations prefer illegally dumping pollution into Appalachian waterways despite EPA's record $20 million fine against the company in 2008 for over 4,600 previous violations.

People may hear about this and wonder what exactly this has to do with mountaintop removal coal mining.  That's because when it comes to this kind of strip mining, it's easier to grasp the impact to the land.  After all, there is a clear and visceral connection between using explosives and heavy machinery to alter the landscape by clear-cutting forests and converting a steep peak into a flattened surface.  And the scale of this destruction in Appalachia is such that this form of strip mining represents the largest earth-moving activity in the United States.  But turning mountains into moonscapes does even greater harm than simply transforming geography.  It screws up the water -- both in terms of polluting downstream waterways with toxic waste and wiping out fragile headwater streams.

Consider the following information, all of which (and more) can be found in NRDC's overviefw on mountaintop mining: Appalachian Heartbreak

  • With mountaintop mining the trees, soil, and debris scraped from the ridgetop do not get placed back on the mountain.  Machines dump this waste, known as "overburden," into the valley below.  The regional hydrology changes because of the drastic topographic and vegetative alterations of the landscape, and the streams flowing down the mountainsides and through the valleys below disappear. 
  • Burying waterways under tons of mining waste, known as a "valley fill," poisons and obliterates them.  A single valley fill can be as wide as 1,000 feet and over a mile long, and can contain as much as 250 million cubic yards of wastes and debris—enough to fill almost 78,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 
  • Burying headwater streams located in the valleys exterminates virtually all forms of life that get interred under millions of tons of waste and debris.  Already, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwaters have been buried or polluted by mountaintop removal, and the damage to Appalachian watercourses has continued at an average rate of 120 miles per year.
  • Even waterways not completely destroyed by valley fills can suffer from mining pollution.  These headwaters are home to some of the most biologically diverse aquatic species in the world, including many found nowhere else on earth—and they serve as the source of drinking water for local residents.
  • Valley fills release trace metals and toxins into surrounding waters for decades after their creation.  According to EPA, over 63% of streams located in the coalfields are "impaired" by alarming levels of heavy metals and toxic chemicals, which can harm aquatic species and threaten human health.  Studies have found increases in calcium, magnesium, total dissolved solids, hardness, manganese, and more threats to water quality.  For example, selenium -- which can be highly toxic to aquatic life even at relatively low concentrations -- has been found downstream of some mountaintop mining sites at levels over 15 times the threshold for toxic bioaccumulation.  (Excessuve selenium causes deformation and reproductive failure in fish -- it's very difficult if not impossible to restore an aquatic habitat polluted this way.)

(Photo by J Henry Fair)

All this explains why the crux of most legal battles over this issue is the Clean Water Act, putting it in the regulatory domain of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  This federal statute generally prohibits pollution from being discharged into waters of the United States unless a permit is obtained.  The law, however, also authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to permit the discharge of "dredged or fill material" into water bodies, a process often used for construction projects in waters.  Back in 2002, the Bush administration created a loophole by adopting a regulation defining mining spoil from surface mines (and other similar wastes) as "fill material" to be regulated by the Corps—essentially legalizing mountaintop removal by allowing the dumping of mining waste into waterways. 

After that, the practice of mountaintop removal escalated like never before; now the Obama EPA is wrestling with how to rein in rampant destruction of Appalachian streams without shutting down coal mining operations in the region.  

All the more reason why the state of Kentucky last week took the surprising -- and welcome -- step of setting new rules for minimizing coal mining's damage to the state's water and land.  An editorial in the Lexington-Herald Leader bemoaned the fact that tougher standards were necessary: "It's interesting to imagine how things might be different today if the industry had followed the rules all along, rather than using its political muscle to eviscerate enforcement and spawn loopholes."

The coal industry has, for decades, sacrificed natural resources for more efficient extraction.  Now the industry is paying the price, in the form of a growing backlash against its destructive methods -- none more reckless than mountaintop removal.  As the editorial explains:

That's because re-sculpting a stripped mountain takes more workers, machinery, engineering and time than just piling up the displaced dirt and rock into "fills" that smother clean water's biological building blocks along with headwater streams.

...If the law had been followed, responsible surface mining wouldn't be an oxymoron.  The "pervasive and irreversible" harm to water cited last week in the prestigious journal Science could have been avoided. 

And did we mention that less destructive mining practices employ more people? If the law had been followed, the environment, and probably the coal industry, would be better off.  But, hey, better late than never.

...In this charged climate, it's great to see successful coal companies take the approach that environmental protection is good for business and following the law makes more sense than fighting over every permit.

While the agreement reached by state and federal agencies is a landmark, it's also just words on paper.  And we've seen how meaningless words on paper can be.  The U.S. Office of Surface Mining must step up oversight, the Corps of Engineers must throw away its rubber stamp and Kentucky must rebuild its mine inspection force if the promise of the law is finally to be real.

With these tougher new rules, folks fighting mountaintop removal in Kentucky may be feeling lucky.  It's time now for federal steps to ensure the protection of America's precious streams and waterways by banning mountaintop removal. 

(Photo by Rob Perks, courtesy of Southwings)