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Study outlines overlooked impacts of mountaintop removal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.

The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.

Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.

"Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive," states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.

The new study emerges this month, just as preliminary results are being released from a $15 million industry-funded research project started in part to examine mining company complaints about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal permits and previous studies that outlined environmental and public health damage from the practice.

The EPA has sought to toughen permit reviews under the Clean Water Act to force the industry to reduce water-quality impacts, especially from the common practice of burying streams beneath huge rock and earth "valley fills."

The new government-funded study, though, outlines new concerns. For example, it says mining has created 640 distinct areas of mountaintop removal and 285 distinct valley-fill areas where mountains have been lowered by an average of more than 110 feet and valleys raised by an average of nearly 175 feet. In those areas, slope steepness has been reduced by about 10 percent, the study said.

"Topographic changes and land-cover changes associated with mountaintop mining have the potential to produce changes in climate at local to regional scales," the study states. "Modeling is needed to determine if the now extensive development of mountaintop mining is leading to such changes."

The study also notes that mountaintop removal often converts mature forests, which store carbon dioxide, to reclaimed sites that do not sequester as much of the climate-warming gas. In addition, the mining process itself and the burning of coal are sources of global warming pollution, the study says. It recommends studying these changes through a carbon-accounting process from pre-mining to between 50 and 75 years after mining is complete.

Also, the study says that mountaintop removal is causing damaging fragmentation of forests, changing the region's distribution of forest communities, raptors and songbirds, and "appears to have a negative impact on human health."

The study says a new Environmental Impact Statement -- meant to update one finalized in 2005 -- would help scientists and government agencies more fully understand all of these issues. The EPA has not announced plans for any such project.

The new study listed 10 co-authors, including researchers from the EPA, USGS and WVU.

BioScience is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

One of the co-authors was Petra Wood, a USGS wildlife biologist who, as a private citizen, took part in a legal challenge to a mountaintop removal permit proposed near her home in Cassville, in Monongalia County.

In another new study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Herpetology, Wood reported on a previous analysis that found fewer salamanders in creeks downstream from valley fills. While the study was only recently published, Wood did the research long before being involved in a mining permit case.

Streamside salamanders are indicators of water quality, and the abundance of stream amphibians has been used as an indicator of ecosystem stress.

"Valley fills appear to have significant negative effects on stream salamander abundance due to alterations in habitat structure, water quality and chemistry, and macro-invertebrate communities in streams below valley fills," the salamander study concluded.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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