Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Science/Environment

February 19, 2010

Appalachian strip mines have long-term environmental effect

GAO says Concentrations of selenium exceeded standards in post-reclaimed streams. Click link at right to download and read GAO report.

Reclaimed surface mines in Central Appalachia have continuing environmental impact after their reclamation bonds are released but are not commonly monitored by state and federal regulators, says a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The non-partisan investigative arm of Congress cited poor reforestation efforts, contaminated streams that harm aquatic organisms, water-flow issues and failure to restore approximate original contour to sites that may be called “mountaintop removal” but are actually permitted as area mines.

State officials, who enforce strip-mine laws with oversight by federal officials, called the report overbroad, but its sponsor endorsed it.

"Mountaintop-removal mining has lasting and far-reaching effects on surrounding lands and streams," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who requested the study, told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "This GAO review documents the extent of these effects and the mechanisms now in place to evaluate their impacts over time.”

The report, coupled with one in December on mountaintop removal, could help inform the debate about surface mining in Central Appalachia, a debate that has intensified from both sides but one that is often dominated by opinion rather than fact.

The report studied surface mining in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, where surface mining disturbed approximately 400,000 mostly forested acres between 1994 and 2008. From 1985 to 2005, almost 1,000 miles of headwater streams were estimated to be buried by valley fills made from rock blasted and excavated to reach coal seams.

The latest report focuses on a core principle of the 1977 federal strip-mine law, which requires coal companies provide a bond ensuring that money will be available for state or federal officials to reclaim mined land if the company fails to do so.

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency “reported that aquatic life downstream from 27 active and reclaimed mountaintop mines with valley fills showed subtle to severe effects compared with aquatic life downstream in similar, but unmined, West Virginia watersheds,” GAO reports. Investigators also reported concentrations of selenium exceeded standards in post-reclaimed streams. Selenium, found in coal and some shales, is in an essential nutrient in small amounts but is toxic in large amounts.

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