Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

Originally Published in the LA Times Sunday Magazine
May 5, 2002

Fair Use Notice

Earth Crash Documenting the Collapse of a Dying Planet

May 3, 2001

Study: Appalachian Hills, Forests Probably Won't Recover from Devastating Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining for 100s of Years, But State 'Regulators' Have Approved 6,000 Valley Fills That Will Bury 75,000 Acres of Streams.

Appalachian hills and hollows may not recover from the damaging effects of mountaintop removal coal mining for hundreds of years, federal experts found in an environmental impact study yet to be published. Investigators from four federal agencies also found that coal mining companies could do much more to limit the number of streams that they bury with mountaintop removal waste, according to drafts of the study.

[ECES note: mountaintop removal coal mining involves the bulldozing off of the entire top of hills and mountains and pushing the dirt into the valleys below, resulting in so-called "valley fills" that totally bury and destroy mountain streams by filling up the valleys with the dirt from the mountaintop. Pictures of the total devastation caused by mountaintop removal coal mining can be seen in the Mining Photo Gallery]

Preliminary findings of the study include the following facts and information:

* Regulators in four Appalachian states (West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee) have approved nearly 6,000 valley fills that will bury 75,000 acres of streams.

* Areas of West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia that are targeted for mountaintop removal contain "some of the best forest habitat in the United States." Loss of "forest habitat and/or forest fragmentation because of mining or other man-made disturbances is a national, regional and local environmental concern."

* Agency experience during recent permit reviews "indicates that mining companies can do more to avoid filling long stream segments" with valley fill waste piles.

In the Jan. 16 EIS summary provided to Wise and Jackson, federal officials said that agency researchers "found that surface mining significantly alters terrestrial ecology."

"Plants and wildlife that require forest habitats are replaced by those that inhabit grasslands," the summary said. "Fragmentation-sensitive bird species such as the cerulean warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, worm-eating warbler, black-and-white warbler, and yellow-throated vireo will likely be negatively impacted as forest habitat is lost and fragmented from mountaintop mining/valley fill operations.

"In addition, the studies found that the natural return of forests to mountaintop mines reclaimed with grasses under hay and pasture or wildlife post-mining land uses occurs very slowly," the summary said. "Full reforestation across a large mine site in such cases may not occur for hundreds of years."

"It is crucial to find better ways of addressing cumulative impacts from multiple mining activities in the same watershed," concluded one study document, a Jan. 8 memo by project coordinator Rebecca W. Hanmer. "The more stream headwaters in a given watershed which are filled, the more difficult it will be to protect the aquatic quality of [the] watershed as a whole," Hanmer wrote.

The study team also concluded that limits like those proposed by a federal court order could dramatically restrict strip mining in West Virginia. In one study, a group of mining engineers examined restrictions like those imposed by the now-voided order by Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II. They found that limiting valley fills to smaller, ephemeral streams "resulted in significant or total loss of the coal resource for 9 of the 11 mine sites when compared to the original mine site plans. The team noted that even if smaller fills could be constructed, they would impact nearly every available valley, possibly increasing the overall environmental impact."

The government and officials of the four states where mountaintop removal mining occurs, generally with little oversight, vigorously tried to stop the draft environmental impact report from being released. The Charleston Gazette was finally able to obtain the draft documents when Environmental Protection Agency officials hand-delivered eight boxes, containing about 40,000 pages of documents, to the newspaper in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request. Similar documents were delivered to the lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, who had filed a similar FOIA request. EPA officials also provided copies to the West Virginia Coal Association, though the mining industry group had not requested the records. Sources said that EPA was providing the documents to the industry "as a courtesy."

In 1998, EPA officials had promised in a lawsuit settlement to release the environmental study by the end of last year. But in October 2000, then-EPA Regional Administrator Brad Campbell delayed the release of the draft study. House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, had objected to the study's release, and EPA backed down.

The documents made public Tuesday revealed that EPA tried again in early January - just before President Bush took office - to release the draft study. This time, Gov. Bob Wise intervened to help block the study from being published, the documents revealed.

In mid-January, a draft of the executive summary was provided to Wise and to state Sen. Lloyd Jackson, whose district includes several large mining operations. Jackson has overseen several legislative reviews of mountaintop removal. Sources say that the state DEP had considered going to court to try to block EPA from releasing the draft documents. Officials said that some Bush administration officials were also considering blocking the release.

EPA has not said when - if ever - it will release a formal draft of its study for public review and comment. It could take months for anyone on either side to fully examine the thousands of pages of draft documents just released.

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