A moratorium on mountaintop mining

Scientists call to stop

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings and new data, UMCES researchers Margaret Palmer and Keith Eshleman are leading a group of leading environmental scientists calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop mining permits. In the January 8 edition of the journal Science, they argue that peer-reviewed research unequivocally documents irreversible environmental impacts from this form of mining which also exposes local residents to a higher risk of serious health problems.

West Virginia's Hobet 21 mountaintop mine. Courtesy of Vivian Stockman.

“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” says Chesapeake Biological Laboratory's Dr. Palmer. “Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”

The group – hydrologists, ecologists and engineers – are internationally recognized scientists, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences. They argue that the U.S. should take a global leadership role on the issue, as surface mining in many developing countries is expected to grow extensively in the next decade.

 “Over the last 30 years, there has been a global increase in surface mining, and it is now the dominant driver of land-use change in the Central Appalachian region,” says the Appalachian Laboratory's Dr. Eshleman. “We now know that surface mining has extraordinary consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Notwithstanding recent attempts to improve reclamation, the immense scale of mountaintop mining makes it unrealistic to think that true restoration or mitigation is possible with current techniques.”

In mountaintop mining, upper elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, and explosives are used to break up rocks in order to access coal buried below. Much of this rock is pushed into adjacent valleys where it buries and obliterates streams. Mountaintop mining with valley fills (MTM/VF) is widespread throughout eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia.

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.

Now more than ever, we need a 21st century approach to fulfilling our nation’s energy needs. No longer can we risk human and environmental health in our never-ending search for inexpensive energy.

Margaret Palmer
Chesapeake Biological Laboratory researcher


The scientists also argue that regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science. “Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses. Considering environmental impacts of MTM/VF, in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians may be compromised by mining activities, we conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer-review and shown to remedy these problems.”

Article co-author Dr. Emily Bernhardt, of Duke University, explains that “The chemicals released into streams from valley fills contain a variety of ions and trace metals which are toxic or debilitating for many organisms, which explains why biodiversity is reduced below valley fills.” The authors provide evidence that mine reclamation and mitigation practices have not prevented the contaminants from moving into downstream waters.

“Now more than ever, we need a 21st century approach to fulfilling our nation’s energy needs,” adds Dr. Palmer. “No longer can we risk human and environmental health in our never-ending search for inexpensive energy. We need to move beyond filling valleys with mountaintop mining waste and temporarily storing fly ash in containment ponds to a modern energy production process built upon sound science, environmental safety and economic common sense.”