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Mountaintop Mining Consequences Damage to ecosystems and threats to human

health and the lack of effective mitigation
M. A. Palmer,1,2 E. S. Bernhardt,3 W. H. Schlesinger,4 K. N. Eshleman,1 E. Foufoula-Georgiou,5 require new approaches to mining regulation.
M. S. Hendryx,6 A. D. Lemly,7 G. E. Likens,4 O. L. Loucks,8 M. E. Power,9 P. S. White,10 P. R. Wilcock11

here has been a global, 30-year nitrogen and phosphorus availability
increase in surface mining (1), which through internal eutrophication (15,
is now the dominant driver of land-use 16). Elevated SO4 can also increase
change in the central Appalachian ecoregion microbial production of hydrogen sul-
of the United States (2). One major form of fide, a toxin for many aquatic plants and
such mining, mountaintop mining with valley organisms (17). Mn, Fe, Al, and Se can
fills (MTM/VF) (3), is widespread through- become further concentrated in stream
out eastern Kentucky, West Virginia (WV), sediments, and Se bioaccumulates in
and southwestern Virginia. Upper elevation organisms (11) (figs. S1 and S2).

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forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, A survey of 78 MTM/VF streams
and explosives are used to break up rocks found that 73 had Se water concentra-
to access buried coal (fig. S1). Excess rock already have more than 10% of their total area tions greater than the 2.0 µg/liter threshold for
(mine “spoil”) is pushed into adjacent val- disturbed by surface mining (table S1). toxic bioaccumulation (18). Se levels exceed
leys, where it buries existing streams. Hydrologic flow paths in Appalachian this in many WV streams (see the chart on
Despite much debate in the United States forests are predominantly through perme- page 149). In some freshwater food webs, Se
(4), surprisingly little attention has been able soil layers. However, in mined sites, has bioaccumulated to four times the toxic
given to the growing scientific evidence of the removal of vegetation, alterations in topog- level; this can cause teratogenic deformities
negative impacts of MTM/VF. Our analyses raphy, loss of topsoil, and soil compaction in larval fish (fig. S2) (19), leave fish with Se
of current peer-reviewed studies and of new from use of heavy machinery reduce infiltra- concentrations above the threshold for repro-
water-quality data from WV streams revealed tion capacity and promote runoff by overland ductive failure (4 ppm), and expose birds to
serious environmental impacts that mitigation flow (8). This leads to greater storm runoff reproductive failure when they eat fish with
practices cannot successfully address. Pub- and increased frequency and magnitude of Se >7 ppm (19, 20). Biota may be exposed to
lished studies also show a high potential for downstream flooding (9, 10). concentrations higher than in the water since
human health impacts. Water emerges from the base of valley fills many feed on streambed algae that can bio-
containing a variety of solutes toxic or dam- concentrate Se as much as 800 to 2000 times
Ecological Losses, Downstream Impacts aging to biota (11). Declines in stream biodi- that in water concentrations (21).
The extensive tracts of deciduous forests versity have been linked to the level of mining
destroyed by MTM/VF support some of the disturbance in WV watersheds (12). Below Potential for Human Health Impacts
highest biodiversity in North America, includ- valley fills in the central Appalachians, streams Even after mine-site reclamation (attempts to
ing several endangered species. Burial of head- are characterized by increases in pH, electrical return a site to premined conditions), ground-
water streams by valley fills causes permanent conductivity, and total dissolved solids due to water samples from domestic supply wells have
loss of ecosystems that play critical roles in eco- elevated concentrations of sulfate (SO4), cal- higher levels of mine-derived chemical constit-
logical processes such as nutrient cycling and cium, magnesium, and bicarbonate ions (13). uents than well water from unmined areas (22).
production of organic matter for downstream The ions are released as coal-generated sulfuric Human health impacts may come from contact
food webs; these small Appalachian streams acid weathers carbonate rocks. Stream water with streams or exposure to airborne toxins and
also support abundant aquatic organisms, SO4 concentrations are closely linked to the dust. State advisories are in effect for excessive
including many endemic species (5). Many extent of mining in these watersheds (11, 14). human consumption of Se in fish from MTM/
studies show that when more than 5 to 10% of We found that significant linear increases in the VF affected waters. Elevated levels of airborne,
a watershed’s area is affected by anthropogenic concentrations of metals, as well as decreases hazardous dust have been documented around
activities, stream biodiversity and water qual- in multiple measures of biological health, were surface mining operations (23). Adult hospi-
ity suffer (6, 7). Multiple watersheds in WV associated with increases in stream water SO4 talizations for chronic pulmonary disorders
in streams below mined sites (see the chart on and hypertension are elevated as a function of
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science,
page 149). Recovery of biodiversity in mining county-level coal production, as are rates of
Cambridge, MD 21613, USA. 2University of Maryland, Col- waste-impacted streams has not been docu- mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung,
lege Park, MD 20742, USA. 3Duke University, Durham, NC mented, and SO4 pollution is known to persist and kidney disease (24). Health problems are
27708, USA. 4Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, long after mining ceases (14). for women and men, so effects are not simply
NY 12545, USA. 5University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
55414, USA. 6West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV Conductivity, and concentrations of SO4 a result of direct occupational exposure of pre-

26506, USA. 7Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC and other pollutants associated with mine run- dominantly male coal miners (24).
27109, USA. 8Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056, USA. off, can directly cause environmental degra-
University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720,
USA. 10University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel
dation, including disruption of water and ion Mitigation Effects
Hill, NC 27599, USA. 11Johns Hopkins University, Balti- balance in aquatic biota (12). Elevated SO4 Reclamation of MTM/VF sites historically
more, MD 21218, USA. can exacerbate nutrient pollution of down- has involved planting a few grass and herb
*Author for correspondence. E-mail: stream rivers and reservoirs by increasing species (20, 25). Compared with unmined

148 8 JANUARY 2010 VOL 327 SCIENCE

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that disposes of excess rock in heads of hollows or valleys

100 0.005 water chemistry are fundamentally altered with streams.
from the premining state. U.S. rules have
Al, Fe, and Mn concentrations (mg/liter)

4. Debates are conspicuous because of recent high-profile

Selenium concentration (mg/liter)

considered stream creation a valid form of federal court cases [e.g., (33)], widely publicized exchanges
10 between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
mitigation while acknowledging the lack of and the ACOE over permitting decisions, advocacy by non-
0.003 science documenting its efficacy (30). Senior governmental organizations, and protests by miners.
officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 5. J. L. Meyer et al., J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 43, 86 (2007).
1 6. J. D. Allan, Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 35, 257 (2004).
(ACOE) have testified that they do not know 7. This 5 to 10% issue is based on studies done on many
of a successful stream creation project in con- nonmining types of land-use change. Thus far, EPA has
not done mining-specific studies on this “threshold”
0.1 junction with MTM/VF (31). issue (percentage of watershed mined versus impacts on
Total [Se] 0.001
Total [Fe] streams) despite many calls for such data.
Total [Al]
Total [Mn] A Failure of Policy and Enforcement 8. T. L. Negley, K. N. Eshleman, Hydrol. Process. 20, 3467
0.01 0.000 The U.S. Clean Water Act and its implement- 9. B. C. McCormick, K. N. Eshleman, J. L. Griffith, P. A.
100 40 ing regulations state that burying streams with Townsend, Water Resour. Res. 45, W08401 (2009).
WV stream condition index
Number of insect genera materials discharged from mining should be 10. J. R. Ferrari, T. R. Lookingbill, B. McCormick, P. A.
WV stream condition index (WVSCI)

Townsend, K. N. Eshleman, Water Resour. Res. 45,

avoided. Mitigation must render nonsignificant
Number of intolerant genera
80 Number of mayfly genera
W04407 (2009).
30 the impacts that mining activities have on the 11. K. S. Paybins et al., USGS Circular 1204 (2000);
Number of genera

structure and function of aquatic ecosystems.

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60 12. G. J. Pond, M. E. Passmore, F. A. Borsuk, L. Reynolds, C. J.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Rose, J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 27, 717 (2008).
Act imposes requirements to minimize impacts 13. K. J. Hartman et al., Hydrobiologia 532, 91 (2005).
on the land and on natural channels, such as 14. J. I. Sams, K. M. Beer, USGS Water Res. Report 99-4208
10 requiring that water discharged from mines 15. N. F. Caraco, J. J. Cole, G. E. Likens, Nature 341, 316
20 will not degrade stream water quality below (1989).
established standards. 16. S. B. Joye, J. T. Hollibaugh, Science 270, 623 (1995).
17. M. E. van der Welle, J. G. Roelofs, L. P. Lamers, Sci. Total
0 0 Yet mine-related contaminants persist in Environ. 406, 426 (2008).
streams well below valley fills, forests are 18. EPA, Stream Chemistry Report, part 2 (EPA Region 3,







destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and bio- Philadelphia, PA, 2002);



Streamwater sulfate concentrations mtntop/pdf/appendices/d/stream-chemistry/

(mg SO42–/liter)
diversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate MTMVFChemistryPart2.pdf.
that MTM/VF causes significant environ- 19. A. D. Lemly, Selenium Assessment in Aquatic Ecosystems:
Mining effects on stream chemistry and biota. A Guide for Hazard Evaluation and Water Quality Criteria
mental damage despite regulatory require-
Sulfate concentrations reflect amount of mining in (Springer, New York, 2002).
watershed. (Top) Average concentrations of man- ments to minimize impacts. Current mitiga- 20. EPA, Mountaintop Mining/VF Final Programmatic Environ-
ganese, iron, aluminum, and selenium. (Bottom) tion strategies are meant to compensate for mental Impact Statement (EPA Region 3, Philadelphia, PA,
Stream invertebrate community metrics in rela- lost stream habitat and functions but do not; 21. J. M. Conley, D. H. Funk, D. B. Buchwalter, Environ. Sci.
tion to sulfate concentrations for 1058 WV streams water-quality degradation caused by mining Technol. 43, 7952 (2009).
(methods in table S2). Regressions all statistically activities is neither prevented nor corrected 22. S. McAuley, M. D. Kozar, USGS Report 5059 (2006); http://
significant (table S3). during reclamation or mitigation. 23. M. K. Ghose, S. R. Majee, Environ. Monit. Assess. 130, 17
Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/ (2007).
sites, reclaimed soils characteristically have VF practices are inadequate. Mining permits 24. M. Hendryx, M. M. Ahern, Public Health Rep. 124, 541
higher bulk density, lower organic content, are being issued despite the preponderance of 25. Mining industry and government organizations recently
low water-infiltration rates, and low nutrient scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive signed a statement of intent to promote reforestation
content (8, 25). Many reclaimed areas show and irreversible and that mitigation cannot approaches that improve reclamation [see, e.g., (34)];
however, adoption of recommendations is voluntary.
little or no regrowth of woody vegetation and compensate for losses. Considering environ- Reforestation of a mined site to premined conditions has
minimal carbon (C) storage even after 15 mental impacts of MTM/VF, in combination not been demonstrated.
years (26). Decreased forest productivity may with evidence that the health of people living in 26. J. A. Simmons et al., Ecol. Appl. 18, 104 (2008).
27. P. Emerson, J. Skousen, P. Ziemkiewicz, J. Environ. Qual.
be related to the type of surface material (e.g., surface-mining regions of the central Appala- 38, 1821 (2009).
brown versus gray sandstone) used in the chians is compromised by mining activities, we 28. B. Y. Amichev, A. J. Burger, J. A. Rodrigue, For. Ecol. Man-
reclamation (27). In reclaimed forests, pro- conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be age. 256, 1949 (2008).
29. P. A. Townsend et al., Remote Sens. Environ. 113, 62
jected C sequestration after 60 years is only granted unless new methods can be subjected (2009).
about 77% of that in undisturbed vegetation to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy 30. EPA and ACOE, Fed. Regist. 73, 10 (2008).
31. U.S. District Court, Civil Action No. 3:05-0784, transcript,
in the same region (28). Mined areas planted these problems. Regulators should no longer vol. 3, pp. 34–45;
to grassland sequester much less. Since rec- ignore rigorous science. The United States US_District_Court_Civil_Action_Official_transcript_Vol-
lamation areas encompass >15% of the land should take leadership on these issues, particu- ume_III.pdf.
32. A. P. Chikkatur, A. D. Sagar, T. L. Sankar, Energy 34, 942
surface in some regions (29) (table S1), signif- larly since surface mining in many developing (2009).
icant potential for terrestrial C storage is lost. countries is expected to grow extensively (32). 33. U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District, Ohio Valley
Mitigation plans generally propose cre- References and Notes
Environmental Coalition et al. vs. U.S. ACOE et al., case
ation of intermittently flowing streams on 1. World Coal Institute, 34. Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, www.arri.
mining sites and enhancement of streams off- 2. K. L. Saylor, Land Cover Trends: Central Appalachians [U.S.
Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS),
site. Stream creation typically involves build- Washington, DC, 2008];
35. This is contribution no. 4368 of the University of Maryland
Center for Environmental Science.
ing channels with morphologies similar to east/eco69Report.html.
unaffected streams; however, because they 3. MTM/VF refers to surface mining operations that remove Supporting Online Material
coal seams running through a mountain, ridge, or hill; it
are on or near valley fills, the surrounding may also refer more broadly to large-scale surface min-
topography, vegetation, soils, hydrology, and ing, including area or contour mining in steep terrain 10.1126/science.1180543 SCIENCE VOL 327 8 JANUARY 2010 149

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