A new study published in a scientific journal shows the long-lasting effects mountaintop removal coal mining can have on a watershed. The study was conducted by a team from Duke University and published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a respected peer-reviewed journal. In it, researchers studied the effects multiple surface mining operations have on the Mud River watershed in West Virginia.
Ty Lindberg is a researcher at Duke and the study’s lead author.
“So as there was more and more mining taking place in the watershed, we saw a direct, proportional relationship to concentrations of different solutes in the stream,” he said.
Lindberg says in a field of many other studies about the environmental harm caused by mountaintop removal, the study offers new information.
“In this case we were really able to control for some of those point sources or non-point sources,” he said. “By the time you get to the downstream end of the permitted boundaries, 50 percent of the upstream area has been mined, and there’s not a lot of housing anymore or people living in that watershed.”
This allowed the team to correlate what they found in the water—like heavy metals, sulfates and other ions—with the amount of surface mining activities in the area.
The study also found that even more than a decade after mines were reclaimed, they continued to release solutes—like heavy metals and sulfates—into streams. In it, the researchers add that permitting decisions should take other area mines into account and consider the cumulative effects on the watershed.
The study’s finding support an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a more rigorous standard for conductivity in coalfields streams. The Commonwealth of Kentucky joined other states in suing the agency over the process, arguing it should have gone through a public notice and comment period. A judge is expected to rule on the case next spring.