Study Reveals Changes to Water Chemistry in Mountaintop Mining Catchment


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Mountaintop mining in West Virginia (NASA)

Mountaintop mining in West Virginia: Image courtesy of NASA

Mountaintop mining is a controversial issue, generating protests among local communities in West Virginia and other areas. A study released today by scientists at Duke University in North Carolina has focused more closely on the impacts which mountaintop mining can have upon the water chemistry of the surrounding areas.

Mountaintop Mining: a Controversial Process

Mountaintop mining involves exploiting coal seams by successive removal of overlying areas of rock (overburden). An exposed seam is then excavated and the next layer of rock removed to access the underlying seam and so on. The unwanted rock (spoil) is deposited in valleys: it is this process which affects water chemistry and provides the basis for the Duke University study.

Mountaintop mining is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is a significant part of the coal industry in the Appalachians, particularly in West Virginia (figures from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training show that it contributed 43 million tons of coal in 2009) and parts of Kentucky.

Its economic value is, however, balanced by concerns about its social and environmental impacts. The EPA notes that issues arising include: fragmentation and slow regrowth of woodlands; changes in the type of birdlife and amphibians; and an increase in the chemical composition of the streams. They are careful to note that ‘cumulative environmental costs have not been identified’ – and it’s the cumulative impacts which the Duke University study addresses.

The Findings of the Duke University Study

There is little doubt that the process of mountaintop mining has adverse environmental impacts, in particular on water chemistry. Indeed, a 2008 study produced by the EPA explicitly states that “many studies have shown that coal mining activities negatively affect stream biota in nearly all parts of the globe” (Pond et al 2008).  Contamination occurs as the minerals associated with mining are exposed to air and water and decompose, releasing their constituent elements into solution in streams.

The study released today, Cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining on an Appalachian watershed, covered streams in an area of 56 square kilometres in West Virginia, including both active and reclaimed surface mine workings, as well as headwaters of the stream above the mined areas.

Next Page: Mountaintop Coal Mining Research Findings

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