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June 24, 2010

Study Finds Widespread Health Hazards from MTR

Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

A landmark study by 12 leading ecologists, hydrologists, and engineers concludes that the damage done by mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) goes far beyond the already-horrendous practice of blasting off entire mountaintops and burying nearby streams under the rubble, referred to by mining companies as "overburden."

Photo by Mary Anne Hitt 

Proponents of MTR argue that the method is safer, faster, and cheaper than underground mining, and that the ecological impacts are localized and short-lived. Faster and cheaper it may be, but strip-mining, like deep mining, remains a dangerous profession, and the ecological impacts of MTR appear to be anything but localized and short-lived.

Photo by Flashdark

Published in the January 8, 2010, issue of Science, the study found that MTR not only kills off aquatic life in the immediate vicinity of the "valley fills," but poisons the ecosystem well downstream, altering biological communities, reducing biodiversity, and causing a host of human health problems due to both waterborne and airborne contaminants. Below, contaminated water emanating from a valley fill in Wise County, Virginia.

Photo by Tom Valtin

The study, "Mountaintop Mining Consequences," represents "the first attempt to collect and assess the best available science on the potential ecological and human health impacts of mountaintop removal"

[All quotes and graphics, below, are from the article Mountains of Controversy by Tim Lucas, of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.]

"The current regulatory framework treats mountaintop removal as if it was a local disturbance and ignores any impacts on downstream or downwind ecosystems," says Emily Bernhardt, an assistant professor of biogeochemistry at the Nicholas School, who co-authored the study.

Bernhardt joined eight other Duke faculty members in a 2-year, $1.5 million project to map the extent of mountaintop removal mining in southern West Virginia, and assess its impacts on ecological and human health. Below, Bernhardt (at center) collects water samples with Duke chemist Helen Hsu-Kim and professor of earth and ocean sciences Avner Vengosh.

Photo by Megan Morr

One example of ecosystem damage the study uncovered was a 2009 fish kill in Dunkard Creek, in the Monongahela Mountains, that extended more than 30 miles downstream of the MTR site. West Virginia state biologists determined it was caused by toxins released by a species of algae normally found only in salt or brackish water. The algae were able to live in a freshwater stream due to significant amounts of mining salts from the MTR operation upstream.

"There's a saying: 'Dilution is the solution to pollution,'" says Bernhardt. "But the more mines we build, especially in the same watershed or on the same headwaters, the less dilution we have."


The Science study cites studies showing that chronic exposure to pollution in mining-contaminated air and water is associated with learning disabilities and lower birth weights in children, and kidney disease, breast cancers, and lung disease in adults. Compare map of mine sites in southern West Virginia, above, with chart showing cancer rates by county, below.


"There are a whole suite of contaminants that are elevated in the water and air," Bernhardt says. "It could be that none of them are over the legal limit, but individually or collectively these contaminants are generating significant chemical stress for organisms living in, or drinking, contaminated water or breathing contaminated air."

Learn more about mountaintop removal mining and take action to help stop it.


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