Science, Tech & Environment

Mountain top removal mining controversy

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Mountain top removal mining site. (Image by Flickr user The Sierra Club (CC: by-nc-sa))

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After putting dozens of mountaintop removal mining projects on hold, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a contentious permit for one of the mines. That means the Patriot Mining Company could soon begin to strip a mountain in Lincoln County, West Virginia, of its trees and soil. The seam of coal is then exposed with explosives.

The tons of rock and earth that once formed the top of the mountain will then be dumped into adjacent valleys. Patriot's Hobet Mine -- scaled back somewhat by EPA -- could bury three miles of streams.

Just days after the EPA approved that mine, the journal "Science" published a paper on mountaintop removal that's nothing short of a bombshell itself. University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer assembled a team of a dozen scientists with expertise in each area the mining harms -- forests and flooding, water chemistry and public health -- for the paper.

According to Palmer, impacts of the mining are pervasive and irreversible and attempts to regulate it are inadequate.

Streams and everything in them are buried when excess rocks and other materials are pushed into adjacent valleys, says Palmer. Additionally, when trees are removed, water flow to remaining streams changes dramatically. And, rock material exposed in the mining process can leach dangerous chemicals.

"For example, things like manganese, iron, sulfate, and of particular concern, selenium," said Plamer.

Selenium, she says, causes deformity in fish living in streams and rivers where elevated amounts have been found. "And higher levels of selenium have been found in some drinking water wells that people use in the region. So this is a major concern... The more and more mining that goes on, the more serious the water quality problems become."

Palmer and other scientists are calling for a halt on permits for mountaintop mining. She admits that they are stepping somewhat beyond the realm of strictly science into policy.

"In many ways this is very much akin to the relationship between smoking and cancer," said Palmer. "It is so obvious and so clear, just like the Surgeon General warns people about smoking. We're basically saying, hey, this needs to stop."

An EPA statement says the agency, "look(s) forward to reviewing the details of this latest study and considering carefully its recommendations."

The EPA is still reviewing several mountaintop-removal permits, including one that would be the largest in West Virginia history.

"Science is what it is," said Randy Huffman, the secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.

"But the debate is going to take place over what is the acceptable amount of impact that society is willing to tolerate for the quality of life and standard of living. I don't think that's something that these other studies have taken into consideration. I don't have the luxury of just looking at one side of it and drawing a line in the sand and saying I don't have to consider those other things, because I do."

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."