Despite many efforts by environmental groups to challenge the right of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to grant permits allowing for the destruction and removal of the Appalachian mountains, those efforts have floundered. In many cases, the mining company has been able to argue that mountaintop removal will not impair water quality. Because of the way federal jurisdiction is exercised over environmental matters, regulations have a short-sighted view that only encompasses certain mediums, such as air and water. The wholesale destruction of the surrounding ecosystem is not of federal concern unless an endangered species is involved. It would be difficult to frame legislation that protects ecosystems such as the Appalachians without, essentially, federalizing an entire region and trying to turn it into a national park. Therefore, scientists worried about the legacy that we are giving our children and grandchildren by blasting mountain ranges into pulverized rockpiles decided to go back and to take another look at the real impact mountaintop removal can have on water quality. The resulting research has been hitting the news wires with quotes like “Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.”
Unfortunately, the research article itself is not freely available to the general public and to see it requires a membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science for $310 per year (for non-scientists or students) or 24-hour copy of the article for $15. After I buy a copy I will update this entry. My criticism of the antiquated and knowledge-stifling practice of not making science research inexpensively available is the topic for another entry. Why the authors would decide to publish an article with important public policy implications this way is beyond me.
So, without reading the article I cannot comment on whether I agree with these authors on their methodology or findings. However, I can say that it ought to be self-evident that blasting the Appalachian mountains to smitherines is not a good thing. Those mountains took 450 million years to form. Now humans will reduce the mountains with coal under them to gravel piles within our children’s lifetimes. The fauna and eco-systems in those mountains are also unique and irreplaceable. Much of my family comes from West Virginia and I have spent a lot of time in these mountains and am familiar with the area and people.
I really doubt that the erosion and stream protections placed by the mining companies will survive very long. I have personally managed strip mine reclamation projects and can attest to the very temporary nature of berms, tiles, intakes, and sedimentation ponds on land with no more than a 5-7 degree slope. I have seen heavy rains suck tile lines (the main way that these mines achieve compliance is to bury the stream flow in plastic tile lines) straight out of the ground and leave them in big piles at the bottom of a hill. How coal mine engineers think that their anti-erosion measures will possibly survive in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with slopes that are three to five times the angles common in Iowa is beyond me. It is a given that once the artificial erosion control features fail that the pulverized rock and dust will oxidize and leach out their components that the water quality will degrade. Of course, it won’t really matter as the entire ec0system will be gone, replaced by the sort of fauna that is better suited to growing in cracks in a sidewalk.