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Study Finds Surface and Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Degrades Water Quality

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Posted Jan. 25, 2012

Interview with Emily Bernhardt, an associate professor of biology at Duke University, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In December, an article appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that exposes the impact of surface and mountaintop removal coal mining on water quality downstream of mining sites. The study reveals that the problem persists many years after reclamation, indicating current environmental protection strategies are not addressing the problem. The findings show a clear connection between the amount of mining in a watershed area and the impact on water quality downstream.

The study, titled, "Cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining on an Appalachian watershed,” conducted by Duke University at the Hobet mine complex in southern West Virginia, was the first to measure water quality both upstream and downstream of mining discharge outlets. One crucial measurement was more than eight times higher than the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The findings confirm what opponents of mountaintop removal mining have been saying for years – that these destructive mining methods are responsible for contaminating surface waters in their communities.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Emily Bernhardt, an associate professor of biology at Duke University and co-author of the study. She explains how the research was conducted, what it reveals, and the next steps to better understanding the impacts of surface mining on water quality.

EMILY BERNHARDT: What is really important about this recently published study is that we show in a large watershed – with a tremendous amount of surface mining – we show a very clear relationship between the absolute amount of mining and the level of water quality impact downstream. So we took samples upstream of the Hobet mine complex, and then through the Mud River as it flowed through the Hobet mine, with eight tributaries contributing additional mining runoff into the stream, and we see this very consistent, very strong relationship between the amount of mining being drained and a large number of trace elements and metals and salts in the Mud River itself.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it killing aquatic life, or causing deformities? Can you say more about that?

EMILY BERNHARDT: There are two components in my answer to that question. The first is about fish, so selenium, which is an important contaminant in alkaline mine drainage is highly elevated in the Mud River system, and it has been clearly associated with very high incidence of fish deformities in the Mud River reservoir, which is about ten miles downstream of the last mining-impacted tributary of the Mud River. So there's clearly an effect on fish communities in this system. We did not measure the effects on insects in the Mud River itself, but in other work we're doing, looking regionally at stream insect communities – and stream insects make up the base of the food web in all these systems – in regional analyses done by our group here at Duke, but also by the U.S. EPA, we see a strong decline in the number of sensitive species of aquatic insects, once conductivity goes above 300 microsiemens. What does that mean? It just means that these very sensitive fresh water organisms cannot handle very much salinity at all, and they disappear from the system.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Has this kind of study ever been done before, where you go upstream and downstream of mining discharge outlets and measure the differences, or is this a first?

EMILY BERNHARDT: It's a little bit remarkable that this is actually a first, because what I think is so powerful about this study is that it's very simple – just going to a large mine complex where a river happens to be moving through the mine complex and looking how its chemistry changes as you move downstream.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Emily Bernhardt, critics might point out that you haven't shown there's any adverse impact on humans, so what's the big deal?

EMILY BERNHARDT: There's two different reasons that we should care. One is that we often use stream insects' diversity or composition as an indicator of water quality. We use them sort of as the canaries in the coal mine. When we lose these sensitive may flies, and stone flies and caddis flies that are really a dominant part of the communities of these Appalachian streams, we think, "Oh, we should be worried. There's something that's not right, that's not the way it used to be. And that may or may not lead to important human health consequences." So that's part of it. The other part is that we have laws to protect species living in aquatic ecosystems in this country, and we are supposed to be protecting species that are sensitive within aquatic ecosystems, so from a purely legal sense we have a responsibility to make sure we are not losing sensitive species.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I thought it was interesting where your study says that individual permitting decisions are made without consideration of the extent of historic mining impacts, because there's other environmental problems where, if you take each permit application individually, it may seem fine, but when you add them all together it's disastrous.

EMILY BERNHARDT: The thing with surface coal mining in this region is that each mine is directly putting waste rock and coal fragments into stream valleys, so they're putting waste directly into the river system. And every time you do that you're contributing new pollutants. And every single mine is then adding to the background pollution load that's come from every mine in the past within that watershed. So if we continue to permit new mines without considering all the mines that have occurred within a river system, then we're going to keep increasing the contaminant load and increasing the distance downstream that that water quality impact can be seen. And we really do need to change the way we're thinking about this and consider the cumulative impacts, and I think the Mud River is a great example of that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's next for your team or other scientists maybe working in this field?

EMILY BERNHARDT: I mean, I think the biggest open question is, "How do we remediate these impacts? Even if coal mining were to stop tomorrow – and it's not going to do that – but even if we were, we'd still have impacts that are occurring even decades after mining ceases on an old surface mine. So how can we go back and remediate those mines in a way that we protect the downstream water quality? And I think that's where we need to see a lot of research dollars invested.

For more information on the issue of coal mining and the effects on water quality, see "New study confirms long-term water quality damage from mountaintop removal coal mining," by Kevin Ward Jr., blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo

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