Appalachian streams affected by mountaintop removal coal mining can have fewer than half as many fish species and a third as many total fish as other regional waterways, according to a new study published this week by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Using data from several time periods to track changes in fish diversity and abundance in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River basin, USGS experts observed persistent effects of mountaintop removal associated with water quality degradation and found no evidence that fish communities recovered over time.
“The Appalachian mountains are a global hotspot for freshwater fish diversity,” said Nathanial Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and lead author of the study. “Our paper provides some of the first peer-reviewed research to understand how fish communities respond to mountaintop mining in these biologically diverse headwater streams.”
The paper, by Hitt and USGS biologist Douglas Chambers, appeared online Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Freshwater Science. The USGS issued a news release on Tuesday to highlight the findings. Fish data for the study was originally collected by a Penn State University team between 1999 and 2001, and the USGS collected additional data from 2010 to 2011.
Results from the new study indicated that water quality was generally more important than physical habitat for the fish community changes that were documented. The researchers found elevated selenium and electrical conductivity levels where fish communities were degraded but saw no differences in the available physical habitat, the study said.
“Our results indicate that headwater mining may be limiting fish communities by restricting the prey base available for fish,” Hitt said. “For instance, fish species with specialized diets of stream insects were more likely to be lost from the streams over time than fish species with more diverse diets.”
The study is the latest in a long series of scientific findings that show environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal, a controversial practice that most West Virginia political leaders support. Other studies have shown that coalfield residents living near mountaintop removal mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death.
Just last month, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers issued a major ruling in a mountaintop removal case. Chambers, citing “extensive scientific evidence,” ruled that conductivity pollution from mountaintop removal is damaging streams in Southern West Virginia.
A ruling that focused on Alpha Natural Resources operations in Boone and Nicholas counties said mining has not only altered the chemistry of streams, but also “unquestionably biologically impaired them, leaving both the diversity and abundance of aquatic life “profoundly reduced.” Alpha has said it plans to appeal the ruling.
Reach Ken Ward Jr.