Scientists Support Ban on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Although it may seem like a no-brainer, it's actually a really big deal that eminent scientists today called for a moratorium on the issuance of mountaintop mining permits.  The announcement came at a press conference in D.C. in which a group of the nation's leading experts cited extensive scientifc evidence of permanent environmental damage and risks to human health from this extreme strip mining.  Their comprehensive findings appear in an article, Mountaintop Mining Consequences, published in the latest edition of the journal Science.

The timing of their collective call to ban all new mountaintop removal permits serves to underscore the concerns raised by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency's apparent backsliding in regard to regulating mountaintop mining.  Earlier this week, the nation's premier environmental agency signed off on a proposed mining permit -- and possibly another in short order -- that will allow coal companies to continue their dismantling of Appalachian peaks at the expense of wildlife habitat, water quality and public health.

The authors of the new study -- hydrologists, ecologists and engineers -- are internationally recognized scientists, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences.  Their peer-reviewed research unequivocally documents irreversible environmental impacts from mountaintop removal, which also exposes local residents to a higher risk of serious health problems.  It outlines severe environmental degradation, including the destruction of vast tracts of deciduous forests and hundreds of miles of small streams that play essential roles in the overall health of entire watersheds.  The authors also explain how waterborne contaminants enter streams that remain below valley fills and can be transported great distances into larger bodies of water.

[UPDATE: The initial coverage of this story comes from the Washington Post.]

David Roberts, over on Grist, boils it all down nicely: "To me, the most amazing part of all this—and clearly the scientists are amazed as well—is the fact that there’s never been a comprehensive assessment of MTR impacts before.  We’re blowing up mountains and we have no idea what the consequences are!  The mind boggles.  It’s like the whole country is just discovering Appalachia."

In a joint statement announcing the study, lead author Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and University of Maryland, College Park states: “The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable.  Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”

Co-author Dr. Emily Bernhardt, of Duke University, explains: “The chemicals released into streams from valley fills contain a variety of ions and trace metals which are toxic or debilitating for many organisms, which explains why biodiversity is reduced below valley fills.”  

Dr. Keith Eshleman, also of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, adds: “Over the last 30 years, there has been a global increase in surface mining, and it is now the dominant driver of land-use change in the Central Appalachian region.  We now know that surface mining has extraordinary consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques.”

Other contributors to the research include: Dr. William Schlesinger, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; Dr. Dennis Lemly, Wake Forest University; and Dr. Michael Hendryx, West Virginia University.

In their paper the scientists document evidence that mine reclamation and mitigation practices have failed to prevent contaminants from moving into downstream waters.  They also describe human health impacts associated with surface mining for coal in the Appalachian region, including elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities.  And they argue that regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science, pointing out that "[m]ining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses."

Considering the severe and extensive environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, the scientists conclude that these controversial mining permits should no longer be granted to coal companies.  Calling for a "21st century approach to fulfilling our nation’s energy needs,” they insist that the risk to human health and natural resources is too great.

"We need to move beyond filling valleys with mountaintop mining waste and temporarily storing fly ash in containment ponds to a modern energy production process built upon sound science, environmental safety and economic common sense,” Dr. Palmer concludes.

Listening to these learned professionals make their compelling case, I can't resist invoking that old TV commercial tag line: "Nine out of ten doctors agree: Mountaintop removal coal mining is bad for your health."  Only in this case, no credible scientist would dare say that blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into valley streams is environmentally benign.

Given the Obama administration's stated commitment to scientific integrity, it's hard to understand why this abhorrent practice is allowed to continue.