Legislation Proposes Moratorium on Mountaintop Removal Permits Until Health Consequences Are Invesitgated

     On Wednesday, February 13th, Congressman John Yarmuth (KY-3) and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (NY-25) introduced the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 526) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The legislation would place a moratorium on all new mountaintop removal mining permits while federal officials examine the health consequences to surrounding communities.

      Over the last 30 years, the amount of surface mining in central Appalachia has steadily increased.  One major form of such mining is mountaintop removal mining with valley fills (MTM/VF).  This type of mining is widespread throughout eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia.  MTM/VF generally utilizes heavy machinery and explosives to remove the tops of mountains to gain access to the coal seams located beneath.

Photo from Science Journal

Ariel View of Mountaintop Removal Mining. (Photo from Science Journal)

     The waste from this removal is then dumped into the adjacent valleys, where it buries existing streams.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mountaintop removal mining operations have buried or polluted nearly 2,000 miles Appalachian streams.  Below valley fills in the central Appalachians, the streams have increased levels of Ph, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids due to elevated concentrations of sulfate (S0), calcium, magnesium, and biocarbonate ions.

A stream below a Kentucky valley fill shows visible pollution from trace metals. (Photo by Ken Fritz).

A stream below a Kentucky valley fill shows visible pollution from trace metals. (Photo by Ken Fritz).

      Chemicals associated with MTM/VF, including mercury, lead, arsenic, thallium, selenium, cadmium, chromium, ammonium-nitrate, iron, manganese and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, have been shown to create adverse developmental or reproductive risks to human and animal health.  The photo below shows the impact of selenium coming from a MTM/VF impacted stream in the Mud River of West Virginia, where selenium has accumulated in food webs up to 4 times the toxic level, and has caused deformities in fish.

Photo from Science Journal

Deformities in Fish Larvae: On top, spinal curvature, on bottom, 2 eyes on 1 side of the head. (Science Journal)

          Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (a sponsor of the bill and a native of Harlan County, Kentucky), believes a moratorium on further mountaintop removal mining operations is called for because of the growing body of evidence showing that people living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites are at an elevated risk for a range of major health problems.  Contact with polluted streams or exposure to airborne toxins and dust from MTM/VF operations pose a threat to human health.  One study in the journal Science, found that in coal-producing counties, the number of adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are higher than in non-coal producing counties.  Communities located by MTM/VF operations also have high rates of lung cancer, chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease.  Another study by Environmental Research found that coal-producing communities have elevated levels of birth defects.

     In 1979 Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which sought to curb abusive mining practices and protect landowners, the public, and the environment from the adverse effects of surface mining coal operations.  The Act established performance standards that mines must follow while operating and reclaiming mined lands.  For example, the Act requires that water discharged from mines will not degrade stream water quality below established standards.  The standards are supposed to  be enforced through permits obtained by mining companies before conducting operations.  Unfortunately, the Act’s requirements have not been consistently enforced, and mining permits are still being issued despite overwhelming evidence that the impacts are pervasive and irreversible.

     The environmental consequences of MTM/VF, along with evidence that the health of people living in surface mining regions of central Appalachia is compromised by mining activities, led the authors of the Science journal study to recommend that no more MTM/VF permits should be granted unless new mining and disposal methods can be subjected to rigorous review and shown to remedy these problems.  The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act would do just that.  The legislation is likely to encounter  opposition in the republican controlled House, where by a vote of 233-175, the House recently approved a bill entitled “Stop the War on Coal.”

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