Citing extensive evidence of irreversible environmental impacts and risks to human health, a group of leading environmental scientists are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new permits for mountaintop mining.

In a policy article in the Jan. 8 edition of the journal Science, the group of 12 hydrologists, ecologists and engineers argues that there should be a moratorium on all new permits for the controversial mining method until more effective methods of mitigation and reclamation can be developed and rigorously tested.

"The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” says Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Department of Entomology. “There is no evidence that any (current) mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage.”

Mountaintop mining is a widespread practice in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. In it, upper-elevation forests are cleared and stripped of topsoil, and explosives are used to break up rocks in order to access coal buried below. Much of the blasted rock is pushed into adjacent valleys, forming “valley fills” that bury and contaminate streams.

Emily Bernhardt, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, says the environmental risks extend far beyond the local ecosystems.

“The chemicals released into streams from valley fills contain a variety of ions and trace metals which are toxic or debilitating for many organisms,” Bernhardt says. These contaminants can be transported great distances into larger bodies of water downstream, reducing biodiversity and threatening the overall health of entire watersheds.
Because of the increase in surface mining over the last 30 years, “it is now the dominant driver of land-use change in the Central Appalachian region,” notes Keith Eshleman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

In addition to citing environmental risks, the paper describes the human health impacts associated with surface mining for coal in Appalachia. These include elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal-producing communities.

“Now more than ever, we need a 21st century approach to fulfilling our nation’s energy needs,” concludes Palmer, the paper’s lead author. “No longer can we risk human and environmental health in our never-ending search for inexpensive energy. We need to move beyond filling valleys with mountaintop mining waste and temporarily storing fly ash in containment ponds to a modern energy production process built upon sound science, environmental safety and economic common sense.”

Researchers from West Virginia University, Wake Forest University, the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Minnesota, Miami University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Berkeley co-authored the paper.