Investigating Looney Creek: An ecosystem autopsy in which we suspect mining as the cause of death fo

Looney Creek’s watershed stretches up Black Mountain on the Virginia side of the Kentucky border, near Rt. 160. The mountainside up near the ridge line is mixed hardwood forest, logged most recently maybe 15 or 20 years ago but not clearcut, as some older trees remain. Although this slope has probably been logged many times, its soil is mostly intact, so what has grown up since its most recent logging is a good mix of the plant life that belongs in a healthy south-central Appalachian forest.

On a fine weekend in October, we set out to trace what happens to Looney Creek as it passes from its healthy, forested headwaters, through land devastated by strip mining, then on down to its confluence with the Powell River in the town of Appalachia. We’re here, in other words, to find out exactly how Looney Creek dies.
Starting high up on the hillside — where there’s no running water to be found, just dampness from rain night before last — we follow the slope sharply downhill, squooshing through soft, deep soil and duff. We come out of the woods at the top of an old strip mine site. Here a rough, overgrown road switchbacks down into an open, grassy bowl where Looney Creek first gathers into a visible flow.

Looking down into the bowl, we see a scattering of pine trees and a few lines of autumn olive shrubs — all that seems to have been planted by way of reclamation after
the strip mining here, or at least all that has survived other than grass and scattered incursions of plant life from the surrounding forest. The ground under our feet here is hard, very different from the soft, thick forest floor on the hillside above. It will take hundreds of years for enough soil to develop to support a real forest on this site. Still, this is about as good as recovery from strip mining gets, with enough vegetation taken hold to stabilize the slope and allow natural soil building to begin. The mountainside’s recovery from strip mining here will take much, much longer than its recovery from the selective logging just uphill. But eventually the relatively healthy forest surrounding this relatively small and stabilized site will engulf it, if we leave it alone long enough to do so.

Here at the edge of the bowl we get our first view, half mile or so farther below, of the active mine site where Looney Creek is heading — a huge gash in the landscape, with most of the mountain on the south side of the creek blown up and pushed aside to get at seams of coal layered deep in the mountain. Instead of making islands of mine site in a sea of forest, mining on this scale makes a dead sea of mine site with forest — much of it damaged by current and previous mining — at the fringes. It’s hard to imagine those fringes engulfing and healing such a huge dead zone in any time span meaningful to humans.

We make our way down into the bowl to where Looney Creek begins. This is not what an Appalachian mountain stream should look like — it’s unshaded, running through grass rather than forest, the streambed more grassy than rocky. But the water is clear, and the stream supports a surprising amount of life. There’s no fish — the creek here is too small for that. But when we turn over a dozen rocks in the streambed, we find seven different kinds of critters, including a couple of stoneflies, a good indicator of healthy stream conditions.

A dozen or so yards farther on, the creek drops off the edge of the bowl into steep woods. We seek a way down, roughly paralleling the creek, through a near-vertical landscape of brambles and jewelweed growing in mining debris long ago dumped off the edge of the bowl onto a wooded hillside. Large trees, at least several decades old, are burdened with mining debris piled on their uphill sides — but they’ve survived. As we descend and the debris thins out, we find soft, living soil beneath our feet again.

Here the landscape is more like a normal forest, where a mountain stream in good health belongs. And here we find another branch of Looney Creek, running steeply downhill over a rocky bottom with big boulders and lots of smaller rocks, all under a full forest canopy. There’s about as much water flowing here as we saw up in the bowl — once again, not enough to support fish, but enough cool, shaded water to keep salamanders happy. (We see maybe half a dozen within a few yards here.) But turning over rocks in the stream here turns up only a couple of flatworms and one old caddisfly casing, far fewer macroinvertebrates than what we found in the branch running through the bowl.

The only reason we can see for this is sediment — there’s far too much silt in the stream here to support a healthy array of streamlife. Why this is so is something of a puzzle. The forest alongside and uphill from this branch of the stream is relatively healthy, hasn’t been recently logged, and so shouldn’t be eroding enough to put this much silt in the stream. But this branch of the stream is fed partly by a ditch running alongside the overgrown road we saw farther uphill. It’s also downhill from whatever drainage trickles out from beneath the bowl the other branch runs on top of. We wonder if even small-scale strip mining, by churning up so much rock and soil and subsoil, then leaving it in a heap structured very differently from what occurs here naturally, continues to send downhill more sediment than the watershed’s streams can handle every time it rains, with water washing bits of displaced earth through the heap. For how long might this continue? Decades? Centuries?

We continue downhill and eastward, past the confluence of these two branches of the creek and on, roughly paralleling the creek, sometimes bushwacking, sometimes following overgrown woods roads. The presence of so many little roads here, often still visibly eroding at the sides even though the roadbed is overgrown with weeds, tells us we’ll likely continue to find too much silt in the stream as we follow it downhill. And in fact we do, everywhere we look along the stream and the many little branches that feed it.

Then, well into the afternoon, we hop over a road that the creek crosses in a culvert, bushwack through a mass of logs and trash and brambles off the side of the road, and rejoin the creek. There’s a gorgeous little veil of waterfall here, coming off a finger of nice-looking woods on the far, south side of the creek, which we continue to follow downstream. A few dozen yards later, we come to the last branch coming into the creek (in another lovely waterfall) from the south before the creek enters the active mine site.

This branch is different — it has much less silt. We haven’t explored the landscape that feeds this branch, but obviously a lot less sediment is washing off it, so we guess that the forest must be more intact there. Here, in addition to many brown salamanders and a crawfish, we find more macroinvertebrate life than in any place we’ve seen since way up where the stream begins.

This branch is also chemically different from the rest of the stream we’ve seen so far. Several electrochemical measurements (of salinity, conductivLity, and total dissolved solids) that when elevated typically indicate pollution such as from mining are much higher here than in any other place we’ve tested so far. The stream critters we see here aren’t showing any obvious illness from this, but we wouldn’t want to drink this water. Although the equipment we’re carrying can’t tell us exactly what’s in the water, the measurements it does give us are markers for water contaminated with toxins such as metals that pose a greater threat to larger animals that accumulate such toxins over time. We wonder if this part of the creek is being fed in part by water from an old underground mine, which could account for it being chemically polluted but not silt-laden.

The water here isn’t acid, though. Much of the concern about the effects of mining on streams focuses on the problem of runoff from places where mining has exposed certain elements that combine with rainwater to make an extremely acid leachate. Acid mine drainage is unquestionably a disaster for life downstream wherever it happens. But it happens only in certain places — while everywhere that strip mining occurs it brings the same sort of ill effects that careless logging does: Stripping the forest cover and churning up the surface allows rainfall to send unnatural quantities of silt into streams, smothering the most basic streamlife, on which all other life there depends.

Beyond this branch, only a few dozen yards farther downstream, Looney Creek passes through another culvert under the road, rackets down over one last pile of boulders, and runs out into the active mine site, ceasing to be anything it’s reasonable to call a stream. This is where Looney Creek dies. Its water runs at first over flat rock that’s been exposed by the earthmoving equipment used to remove the face of the hillside on the north side of it. It continues over grey crushed gravel, on through the middle of the enormous mine site we first glimpsed from the top of the bowl. There’s no vegetation anywhere in or near the flow of water here, no shade, little or no possibility for life.

We clamber uphill and into the woods on the north side of the no-longer-a-creek, seeking a better view. The water flow, we see, soon peters out into the gravel. At times when there’s more water flowing here, after a rain, the flow continues in a ditch along the road into several settling ponds.

The mining operation here is currently working a face below and up against the hill we’re standing on; there’s a flat area at the bottom where rainfall and waste water would collect, so they’ve got a pump and a large hose running from there up to the gray gravel ditch along the road. Farther along the gravel ditch is a gray smear of puddle — the first of the settling ponds. Nearby we see a gas well in a murky pool, with methane bubbling out of it. This water, too, will flow into the creek — it has no place else to go. Beyond the second of the settling ponds, the flow continues down a boulder-filled industrial drainage ditch for a couple hundred yards into yet another settling pond.

By the time we get to a place where we can see all this, we’re close to the mine site’s parking area. It’s late, and soon the sun sets, but tonight the moon is near full. We can’t continue to follow the flow of water without being seen, so we settle in for the night in the woods at the north side of the mine site, hoping to reach the settling ponds across the mine site in the early morning under cover of fog. We’re close enough to the mine’s entrance onto Rt. 160 here that we can see lights from across the road, and hear equipment there, where mining continues 24/7.

There’s no fog in the morning, alas, so we turn our backs on the no-longer-a-creek, leave the mine site, and return the next day to approach the settling ponds from the other side of the site.

It takes a long hike through blackberries and greenbrier (thickets of these grow in profusion on disturbed places on mine sites) to reach a good vantage point above the first of those three ponds. After sliding down the hill to the first pond, we sample the water and take photos. As expected, this isn’t a healthy aquatic environment: Even on a cool fall day, the water temperature is in the 70s; upstream the water was in the 50s everywhere we stopped along the creek. The water here is significantly more acidic, and its electrochemical measurements are exceedingly high — much higher than even that last branch before the stream entered the mine site. There are no signs of life here except grass planted near the pond. At the third settling pond, the last before the flow leaves the mine site, the measurements are much the same.

From this final settling pond, the water flows over a large boulder-covered embankment into the original watercourse of Looney Creek and is joined there by a branch coming in from the mine site across Rt. 160. A few yards farther on, it looks quite like a normal stream. There’s a full forest canopy over the stream, with a nice mix of hardwoods and shrubs, grasses and ferns and herbs growing along the stream banks. The streambed shows a nice mix of rock sizes, too, which should be hospitable to streamlife. The water is pretty clear, and it’s cooled down considerably, to the 60s. It’s not too acidic. But its electrochemical measures are very close to those of the water in the settling ponds — far from normal. And there’s far too much silt smothering the streambed. We find absolutely no macroinvertebrates living here, or signs that they formerly lived here. No fish. No salamanders. Looney Creek looks pretty good here, but it’s dead.

In one way, though, the stream here doesn’t even look good: Most of its banks show signs of erosion from recurrent pulses of flood. This is typical of streams coming off strip mines: Stripping the forest off mountainsides greatly reduces the amount of rainfall that soaks in and slowly trickles off later, and greatly increases the amount of water that runs off all at once, in a sudden pulse of flood. Such pulses of flood routinely scour sediment off the stream banks, which then smothers streamlife farther downstream. They also warn of the risk of catastrophic flooding in times of unusually heavy rain or snowmelt.

Downstream from here, Looney Creek runs close by Rt. 160 for several miles, past a settling pond from yet another mine site that drains into the creek, past clearcuts along the road, past an old underground mine portal where a large pipe discharges a great foul-smelling gush into the stream, and past the town of Inman, where a young child was killed in his own bed two years ago by a rock coming off yet another mine site up in the hills near the creek. A pattern emerges that repeats itself all the way downstream to the Powell River. Streamlife asserts itself everywhere it can, and here and there Looney Creek begins to show signs of new life. But those
beginnings are doomed. The stream gets walloped by one death-dealing catastrophe after another — silt and polluted runoff from the big mine site upstream, more silt eroded from stream banks by pulses of flood, still more silt and raised water temperature from careless logging stripping forest cover from the land and shade from the stream. Still more silt and pollution from other mine sites drains into the creek at probably every branch downstream, so extensive is the mining in this watershed.

Our final stop is at the Powell River, just downstream from the confluence where Looney Creek pours itself into this bigger waterway. The river here is about 20 yards across, its depth ranging from a few inches to a few feet. Shade from adjacent trees covers nearly all of the riverbanks. It’s not a bad-looking stretch of river, and there ought to be fish here — but though we watch for quite a while, we don’t see a one. Other streamlife is missing, too. All we see are four sowbugs and a lot of snails. The water is slightly alkaline here, more so than normal. Its electrochemical measures are alarming, nearly as bad as those for the settling ponds at the active mine site.

Upstream from its confluence with Looney Creek, the Powell River is fed by other streams that run through or collect runoff from other mine sites. It’s a good guess — one that needs to be confirmed with further fieldwork — that like Looney all of these creeks suffer from successive wallops delivered by the mine sites in their watersheds, becoming more and more impaired, and less and less supportive of life as they continue downstream. Each of these streams in turn wallops the Powell.
Impairment of water quality on such a vast scale is legal only because of a federal administrative interpretation of the Clean Water Act that allows mining companies to get away with it. Legal or not, it is surely wrong to kill these streams — as hundreds of miles of such streams have been killed or buried in recent years by strip mining in Appalachia — a crime against nature and against the people who live here and downstream. It’s also grievously foolish public policy to sacrifice the future of south-central Appalachia’s uniquely rich ecosystem for the short-term profit of a handful of coal companies. If there is to be any future for nature or human beings in this part of the world, this must stop, and reclamation efforts must begin on a truly grand scale, grander even than what the CCC accomplished in the 1930s here in replanting and erosion control after decades of rapacious logging.

Documenting the damage mining has done is an early step in this effort. The stream assessment project begun last fall at Looney Creek is intended to provide part of that needed documentation. If you want to help this work — with expertise or information, with donation of water-testing or other equipment, with putting the project’s data to good use, with gift cards good for gas or developing film, or with cash or other resources — please email or call the toll-free voicemail number 866-411-8016.

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