In an article published Friday
in the journal Science , the
scientists say mountaintop removal mining and valley fills together are an
environmentally unsustainable practice that even after approved mitigation
techniques harms the environment and potentially human health.
Speaking at a press
conference in Washington D.C. Thursday, scientists studying various effects of
mountaintop removal mining say their review of existing research on mitigation
practices, stream health and public health, led them to make a policy
Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is lead author of the paper.
“We made the recommendation, which is
somewhat unusual for a group of scientists, that mountaintop mining permits
should be halted,” Palmer said.
In mountaintop removal mining the tops of mountains
are deforested and carved away and the debris is placed in nearby valleys,
clogging headwater streams.
One of the paper’s co-author’s Emily Bernhardt
acknowledged the controversy over the mining practice and the argument that
it’s mayflies verses miners. Bernhardt
says the presence of mayflies tells scientists about a lot more than the little
“Regardless of your feelings for mayflies, the fact
that they are disappearing from these systems is an indicator that these
ecosystems are sick,” said Bernhardt.
West Virginia University Department of
Community Medicine researcher Michael Hendryx was another co-author of the
paper. He spoke about the potential
impact to human health. His research shows
that disease and death rates are higher around surface mining, even when other health
risks, like smoking and poverty are factored out.
“We also see that the effects become
stronger as the level of mining increases,” Hendryx said.
Hendryx’s research has also found higher
rates of low birth weight babies and babies born with abnormalities in
communities where there’s surface mining.
The scientists say techniques to fix some
of the pollution problems from mountaintop removal sites exist, but cost is a factor. However, the scientists say there’s no
acceptable mitigation for burying a stream in a valley fill.
In September, the
Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would scrutinize 79
mountaintop removal permits. Earlier this week, it approved one: for a mine in Lincoln County.
The Army Corps of Engineers
subsequently granted the permit.
As a result, the West
Virginia Department of Environmental Protection decided this week to stop
reviewing mountaintop removal mining permits that include a valley fill. The agency will have to rework the permit
that was approved this week, so it wants to wait and see what the EPA plans to
do with the 78 permits still on hold.