Scientists decry mountaintop mining's impacts, call for ban

Regulators should ban mountaintop-removal mining unless they can improve pollution controls and reclamation measures needed to protect Appalachian residents and waterways, a collection of scientists said in a paper released today.

Their study, which is scheduled for publication tomorrow in the journal Science, documents increased concentrations of toxics in streams filled with mining spoils and a corresponding decline in water quality long after the mines are closed.

Water and air pollution associated with mountaintop-removal mining is responsible for more than 2,300 deaths a year in all of the Appalachian mining region, said Michael Hendryx, one of the study's authors and research director for West Virginia University's Institute for Health Policy.

Those deaths are the result of a federal failure to enforce environmental policies, the scientists wrote.

"Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science," they wrote. "Considering environmental impacts of [mountaintop mining and valley fills], in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians may be compromised by mining activities, we conclude that ... permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer-review and shown to remedy these problems."


The call for a mountaintop-removal ban was compelled by data showing that the practice -- which involves blasting off the peaks of mountains -- is damaging human health and the environment, said Margaret Palmer, a co-author and a biologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

"What we have today is chemists, engineers, biologists and health experts who all agree that the evidence is overwhelming ... that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped," Palmer said.

The peer-reviewed paper, which relies on a synthesis of previous studies and new data on damage to freshwater ecosystems, also says current methods intended to repair mining's environmental damage fall far short of replicating resources destroyed by mining.

"Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses," the researchers wrote.

Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the study was intended to push an agenda rather than to objectively analyze the information. She said researchers dropped much relevant data while playing up a "worst-case scenario" for mining's effects on water quality.

"I would have to view this as an advocacy piece, rather than independent science," Raulston said.

Raulston criticized the study for providing little information to support its broad conclusions about damage to human health. More rigorous studies, she said, suggest that poor public health in West Virginia and Kentucky is linked to the states' low-income populations, not to their mining industries.

The study's statements on reclamation, Raulston added, were based on the authors' misconception of reclamation's goals. Restoring mined ecosystems to their original state is largely impossible and is not what mining companies are required to do, she said. Mining companies are instead required to restore land and water to quality standards to meet state water-quality standards, she said.

Palmer defended the paper, saying that of the approximately 150 studies she has published, this one was subject to the most rigorous peer review. She also noted the researchers had donated their time and received no outside funding.

Hendryx said his figures on mining-related mortality rates is drawn from data collected by the Centers for Disease Control between 1979 and 2005. He said he controlled for the presence of other risk factors, such as smoking and poor access to health care, that are prevalent in Appalachia.

Click here to read the 2009 study from which Hendryx drew his mortality estimate.

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