New federal research using data from southern West Virginia show streams affected by mountaintop removal mining have fewer fish species and fish overall than other streams.
Research released Tuesday from the U.S. Geological Survey is the latest in a series of reports from federal agencies arguing mountaintop removal mining practices contribute to pollution in streams throughout Appalachia.
“Our results indicate that headwater mining may be limiting fish communities by restricting the prey base available for fish,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and lead author of the study, said in a news release.
“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 was published this week in the journal “Freshwater Science.”
Mountaintop removal mining, also called surface mining, is the practice of mining for coal by removing surface rock and other materials in order to access the coal.
Supporters of the practice, like the West Virginia Coal Association, say the practice is a viable way to mine coal that also creates economic development opportunities in the flat land resulting from the method.
“As you can see around you, we have a lot of mountains in West Virginia,” association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton is quoted as saying on the association’s website.
“We also don’t have a lot of flat land that can be developed. So when we talk about mountaintop mining, what we’d really like to call it is ‘mountaintop development.’”
Association President Bill Raney and Vice President Jason Bostic didn’t respond to a request for comment about the latest research.
The new peer-reviewed study relies on data collected from the Guyandotte River basin, which spreads across much of the southern coalfields. The USGS team collected data from the area in 2010 and 2011 and compared the data collected between 1999 to 2001 by a team from Pennsylvania State University.
The study shows water quality has a greater impact on changes to fish than differences in their habitat. Specifically, the team found higher selenium and “conductivity” levels in streams where fish populations had suffered.
The state Legislature passed a law in 2013 that increased the amount of selenium allowed in water. It’s a naturally occurring substance that isn’t dangerous in small amounts, but the USGS, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others argue amounts found in coal mine discharges are toxic.
Streams with higher conductivity tend to have more inorganic materials, like chlorides and sulfates, that are found in discharges from mining sites.
The state Department of Environmental Protection needs to do more to regulate discharges from sites when they re-issue permits, said Rob Goodwin, a technical analyst for an organization calling on more accountability from the DEP.
“The science is clear fish and aquatic life are being harmed by mine pollution, and the ball is in WVDEP’s court to establish better standards for coal mines and not support industry efforts to weaken standards every year at the legislature,” Goodwin said in an email to the Daily Mail.
DEP spokeswoman Kelly Gillenwater said in an emailed statement the DEP has not had time to review the report, but “takes its obligation to protect aquatic life very seriously and has measures already in place and others planned for the near future to ensure water quality standards are met.”
“One primary safeguard is the issuance of NPDES permits, which include strict discharge requirements to ensure streams meet Category B1 and B2 use categories and the water quality standards necessary for maintaining aquatic life,” she said in the statement.
“DEP staff closely monitor permit holders and review discharge testing results to make sure those requirements are adhered to. Also, since Senate Bill 562 was passed by the Legislature in 2012, the agency has been working to establish new stream assessment methodology that includes not only data related to benthic macroinvertebrates (bugs), but also takes into account fish community information to get a better picture of the overall health of a specific stream.
She said the DEP would also soon begin requiring additional discharge testing for all mines. The requirements will help ensure chemicals used in the mining process don’t threaten the health of streams, she said.