Coal Mining May Have Damaged Up To 22% Of Streams In Southern W. Virginia - 1,700 Miles Of Streams
Decades of mountaintop-removal mining may have harmed aquatic life along more than 1,700 miles of streams in southern West Virginia, according to new research (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es301144q). Mining companies have converted 5% of the region to mountaintop mines. The resulting water pollution has caused so many sensitive species to vanish that 22% of streams may qualify as impaired under state criteria, the researchers report.
In the 1970s, many coal-mining companies in central Appalachia began to favor mountaintop-removal mining over traditional underground mining. At mountaintop mines, workers blast apart surface rock to gain access to coal seams and then dispose of waste rock and coal residues in nearby river valleys.
Large quantities of minerals leach from these waste sites, increasing salinity and the levels of trace metals downstream. Researchers have previously documented water pollution near individual mines, but they knew little about how far pollution flowed or how the regionís mines collectively affected water quality, says study author Emily Bernhardt of Duke University.
Using satellite images taken by NASA between 1976 and 2005, Bernhardt and her coauthors created maps of mountaintop mining in a 12,000-square-mile region of southern West Virginia. They found that companies had converted 5% of the land to mines during this period.