Thursday, April 10, 2008

Help Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

A bill in the House of Representatives, introduced by Frank Pallone and Christopher Shays, would end some of the worst damage from mountaintop removal mining. It already has 129 co-sponsors. Check the list and contact your representative if your representative is not already on it.

Mountaintop removal mining is an environmentally devastating way of extracting fuel for electric power plants. The practice should concern birders because it removes habitat along with the mountains.

Mountaintop removal mining is a type of surface mining found in the Appalachian portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. As its name suggests, mountaintop removal mining involves removing the top of a mountain in order to uncover the coal seams contained near the mountain's surface. Explosives are used to break the mountain's rock, and massive earth-moving equipment (such as "draglines") removes the spoil - the dirt and rock that formerly composed the mountaintop. Federal law normally calls for excess spoil to be placed back in the mined areas, returning the lands to their approximate original contours. However, in mountaintop removal mining, vast quantities of spoil are carried to surrounding valleys and dumped, hence the term mountaintop removal/valley fill. Why not simply replace the fill at the mine site and return the mountain to its former state? The answer is because broken rock occupies more volume than the original mountain, and so there is always spoil left over. Also there are concerns with spoil stability in steep terrain....

One consequence of mountaintop removal mining is that streams flowing through the valleys are buried. Large mines may be surrounded by several valley fills because of the sheer volume of broken rock and spoil created. Depending on the local topography and the profile of those valleys, a single fill may be over 1,000 feet wide and over a mile long. Until recent years, excess spoil from coal mining was generally placed in the extreme headwaters of streams, affecting primarily ephemeral streams that flow intermittently only in direct response to precipitation in the immediate watershed. Because smaller upstream disposal sites are exhausted and because of the increase in mountaintop mining activity, today the volumes of a single stream fill can be as much as 250 million cubic yards. As a result, streams are eliminated, stream chemistry is harmed by pollutants in the mining overburden, and downstream aquatic life is impaired. From 1985 to 2001, an estimated 724 stream miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee were covered by valley fills, and 1,200 miles of headwater streams were directly impacted by mountaintop mining activities.
Many of the Appalachian ridges are covered with mature forests; any bird that depends on this type of habitat will be displaced. One of the birds threatened by mountaintop removal mining is this blog's mascot, the Cerulean Warbler, which has declined precipitously in the last 40 years. Old-growth Appalachian forests are prime breeding territory for this warbler. The central Appalachians also provide the southernmost breeding range for several northern birds, such as Golden-winged Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch. Some groups are working to convert abandoned mining sites back to forest, but in the short-term substitute it is better to leave habitats intact.

H.R. 2169, the Clean Water Protection Act, would stop some of the worst abuses by banning mining companies from dumping spoil material into streams. This bill's prime effect would be to protect water from further pollution, both in the headwaters and downstream. It could also slow the rate of mountaintop removal since companies would have to find new places to dump their waste.

Again, check the list and tell your representative to support the bill.