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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Science Confirms the Abhorrently Obvious: Blowing Up Mountains Damages Environment, Human Health

Or should I say, the obviously abhorrent...

The incredibly destructive coal mining practice known as "mountaintop removal" causes "pervasive and irreversible" damage to human health and the environment, according to an authoritative scientific study released today.

The comprehensive and far-reaching scientific review, entitled "Mountaintop Mining Consequences", was conducted by members of the National Academy of Sciences and is being published in the prestigious journal Science.

The study summarized dozens of pre-existing scientific papers analyzing the impacts of mountaintop removal mining, a type of surface coal mining that uses huge amounts of explosives to blast away the tops of mountains to expose coal seams. The resulting debris (aka the former mountain) are typically disposed of through a practice known as "valley fills," where tons of mining debris are dumped into neighboring valleys, burying miles of headwater streams and valley ecosystems.

According to a press release on the study:

...the authors outline severe environmental degradation taking place at mining sites and downstream. The practice destroys extensive tracts of deciduous forests and buries small streams that play essential roles in the overall health of entire watersheds. Waterborne contaminants enter streams that remain below valley fills and can be transported great distances into larger bodies of water.

Mountaintop removal mining has already buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams and destroyed hundreds of square miles of woodlands in one of America's biodiversity hotspots, all while both the U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies have allowed the destructive practice to continue. That's left it to activists to slow these projects down and prevent their irreversible damages.

The new scientific study condemned federal and state regulation of mountaintop removal mining operations, concluding that “Current attempts to regulate [mountaintop mining and associated valley fill] practices are inadequate,” and that “Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.”

Environmental and Appalachian community advocates hailed the study as a powerful indictment against mountaintop removal mining, according to Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit working to bring coalfield residents together to end mountain removal.

Opponents of mountaintop removal expressed disappointment over the Obama Administration’s fluctuating stance on mountaintop removal, citing inconsistencies with statements made by President Obama about restoring science to a more prominent position in agency decision-making. The new study was released just days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the expansion of the largest mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia.

Appalachian coalfield residents have long been aware of the obvious and major impacts mountaintop removal mining has on the health of local communities and verdant Appalachian ecosystems. Appalachian Voices is hopeful that the study will embolden the Obama Administration to take more decisive action to ultimately end the practice.

In a recent interview the President told the political news organization, Politico, “It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient-especially when it’s inconvenient.” Yet last year, the Obama Administration released a multi-agency plan that called for more strict enforcement of laws regulating mountaintop removal but stopped short of prohibiting the practice

“The scientific study released today comes as little surprise to us living in the Central Appalachian coal mining region,” says Nina McCoy from Martin County, Ky., site of a large coal sludge dam break that overtook the county in 2000. “This should be the evidence the Obama Administration needs to close the floodgates on new mountaintop removal permits and stop the poisoning of our people.”

The EPA recently told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show that the agency does not believe it has the authority to stop permitting mountaintop removal outright. Critics counter that there are other avenues through which the Administration could effectively end the practice.

“The EPA has made commendable efforts to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal on downstream water quality, but this study shows that mitigating and regulating the wholesale destruction of Appalachian Mountains is just not effective,” said Dr. Matthew Wasson, ecologist for Appalachian Voices and director of the campaign to end mountaintop removal on

“The President has the power to end mountaintop removal through any number of agency actions,” Wasson added, “and he should call on Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill designed to end mountaintop removal-but the message from this study is that he’s out of excuses for allowing mountaintop removal to continue.”

Ken Ward Jr. of Coal Tattoo, Andy Revkin of DotEarth at the NYTimes and David Roberts at Grist all have more. See for more resources on mountaintop removal, and to take action.

[Update, 3:00 pm Pacific time: National Public Radio just carried this story on their evening news. The online version includes a collection of photos documenting the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.]

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