Ecological Impacts of Mountaintop Removal

The Appalachian region is home to one of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountain systems on the continent. Tragically, mountaintop removal mining has already destroyed more than 500 mountains encompassing 1.2 million acres of central and southern Appalachia.

Mining companies detonate approximately 2,500 tons of explosives daily, equal to a Hiroshima-strength atomic bomb on a weekly basis (Excel document). After mountaintops are blasted apart, they are dumped into neighboring valleys, causing a whole host of damaging environmental impacts.

Water

The EPA estimates that mountaintop removal valley fills are responsible for burying and polluting nearly 2,000 miles of vital Appalachian headwater streams. Water downstream of mountaintop removal operations has shown significant increases in conductivity and hardness as well as sulfate and selenium concentrations. (EPA)

The intention of the federal Clean Water Act is to eliminate additional water pollution, not to allow Appalachian headwater streams to be buried beneath mining waste. But in 2002, the George W. Bush Administration reclassify mining waste as permissible “fill material” under section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which created the loophole to allow the dumping of mountaintop removal waste into streams. This change has allowed the extreme acceleration of mountaintop removal mining. In the words of U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II:

“When valley fills are permitted in intermittent and perennial streams, they destroy those stream segments. The normal flow and gradient of the stream is now buried under millions of cubic yards of excess spoil waste material, an extremely adverse effect. If there were fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration. Under a valley fill, the water quantity of the stream becomes zero. Because there is no stream, there is no water quality.”

Photo of a mountaintop removal site and denuded forests by Matt Wasson

Contrasting photos of a traditional mountain stream (at left) and a mountain stream
diverted into a culvert and buried by mining debris (at right) in a process known as a “valley fill.”


Acid mine drainage

Forests

In 2003 the EPA estimated that mountaintop removal mining was responsible for the elimination of over 1.2 million acres of forest. Since the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, which regulates mountaintop removal, does not require coal companies to reforest land as part its post-mining reclamation requirements, these rich ecosystems are routinely replaced with fields of non-native grasses. According to the EPA:

Studies found that the natural return of forests to mountaintop mines reclaimed with grasses under hay and pasture or wildlife post-mining land uses occurs very slowly. Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years.

After topsoil and upper portions of a mountain’s rock strata have been removed, the resulting land is incapable of restoring native hardwood forest habitat. With the loss of this lush habitat go vast biological resources, and an important global carbon sink to recycle the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change.

The loss of Southern Appalachian interior forest is of global significance because of the rarity of large expanses of temperate deciduous forest.


Image courtesy of iLoveMountains.org and The Nature Conservancy

Biodiversity

The Central Appalachian region where mountaintop removal occurs- including southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee- is at the heart of one of the most biologically diverse regions in all of the United States. Central Appalachia provides habitat to thousands of plant and animal species, many of which are found only in the region. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Appalachia contains “one of the most diverse assemblages of plants and animals found in the world’s temperate deciduous forests.”

Birds

Cerulean Warbler
Cerulean Warbler

Bird species that rely on mature forest habitats are numerous in Appalachia. According to the American Bird Conservancy, Kentucky warblers, worm-eating warblers, wood thrush, Louisiana waterthrush and the cerulean warbler are all impacted by mountaintop removal operations. The Conservancy warns that Cerulean warblers are in particular danger, as they have experienced rapid decline over the past four decades. Appalachia’s mixed hardwood cove forests and uniquely shaded streams are key to the survival of this species, but this habitat is rapidly disappearing.

Blackside Dace
Blackside Dace.
Photo credit:USFWS

Fish

Appalachian fish species are also threatened by mountaintop removal. Blackside dace populations exist in Kentucky and Tennessee, where they inhabit small, cool streams in forested areas. Unfortunately, mountaintop removal is eradicating forests integral to this small fish’s survival. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “The most significant factor in the decline of the blackside dace has apparently been habitat degradation from siltation, particularly in relation to surface mining.” Developmental abnormalities are also being discovered in West Virginia fish, and these abnormalities are considered linked to the high selenium concentrations found in streams below valley fills.

Indicator Species

Mayfly, or Rhithrogena germanica subimago
The Rhithrogena germanica
subspecies of mayfly

MacGowan Salamander
MacGowan Salamander

In August 2009, Doug Wood, a biologist for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, expressed concern over evidence that an entire order of Ephemeroptera (mayfly) had been eliminated from streams below mountaintop removal valley fills. Wood wrote that “the loss of an order of insects from a stream is taxonomically equivalent to the loss of all primates (including humans) from a given area,” and also that “such adverse ecological impacts are most certainly significant, and they prevent affected streams from meeting their designated aquatic life uses.”

Salamanders are also being severely impacted. Species of this animal, which are top predators in Appalachian headwater streams, have been found to be either completely absent or significantly reduced in number below mountaintop removal valley fills. These animals remain absent or significantly reduced in number until affected waters reach other tributaries, unaffected by valley fills. Generally speaking, Doug Wood explains, mountaintop removal “has had significant adverse impacts on many geological/pedalogical and hydrological components of both lentic (still water bodies) and lotic (flowing water bodies) aquatic ecosystems.”

“It is as if the brain decided it was the most important organ in the body and decided to mine the liver.” – James Lovelock