by Ken Ward, Jr. cross-posted from Coal Tattoo   [or as Grist reports: Science confirms that blowing up mountains harms mountains]

“Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses.”

That quote above is the conclusion of a blockbuster study by a group of the nation’s top scientists, detailing the incredibly damaging environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and the failed efforts at reclaiming mined land or mitigating the effects.  Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings, the paper calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop removal mining permits unless new mining and reclamation techniques “can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems.”

According to the paper:

.. Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/VF practices are inadequate … Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.

A press release explained that:

In their paper, 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.

The peer-reviewed paper, “Mountaintop Mining Consequences,” is published in Science, which is considered one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.  Science is the academic journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has an estimated readership of more than a million people. The paper was authored by a dozen scientists from various fields — from biology and hydrology to forestry and ecology — including several members of the National Academy of Sciences.  A summary of the paper is available here for free.

It is without a doubt the most significant paper on mountaintop removal to ever hit a scientific journal.  It cites nearly three dozen previously published peer-reviewed papers, government studies and a first-ever detailed analysis of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Water quality data:

Despite much debate in the United States, surprisingly little attention has been given to the growing scientific evidence of the negative impacts of MTM/VF.

Our analysis of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address. Published studies also show a high potential for human health impacts.

The authors note that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act imposes requirements to minimize impacts on the land and on natural channels, such as requiring that water discharged from mines will not degrade stream water quality below established federal standards.

Yet mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biodiversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate that MTM/VF causes significant environmental damage despite regulatory requirements to minimize impacts.

Current mitigation strategies are meant to compensate for lost stream habitat and functions but do not; water-quality degradation caused by mining activities is neither prevented nor corrected during reclamation or mitigation.

Lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science said:

The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop removal 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.

 [TPH Editor: This Coal Tattoo post has 40 comments]

Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter with the Charleston (WV) Gazette, covers coal mining and worker health and safety extensively, along with many other environmental health topics.  He is chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ First Amendement Taskforce.