An environmental threat: Biologist makes the case for banning mountaintop mining

Selenium pollution from mountaintop coal mining is causing permanent damage to the environment and poses serious health risks, Dennis Lemly, a research professor of biology, told U.S. Senators in a briefing in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 23.

The evidence can be seen in dead and deformed fish, he said. Selenium pollution affects fish first, so they are the best barometer for understanding the threat to ecosystems downstream from mountaintop removal mining operations, said Lemly, who advocates a ban on the process.

Mountaintop removal mining, which has doubled in the past eight years, blasts the top off a mountain and pushes the excess rock to the neighboring valley to get to the coal underneath. Over the past two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams. Most common in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, this type of mining causes toxic levels of selenium to leach into rivers and streams.

“We’re killing fish right now with selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mining,” he said. “Toxic levels of selenium were found in 73 of 78 stream samples. The threat is expanding as use of this destructive process expands. Once these ecosystems are polluted, damage to the environment is permanent.”

Lemly, who supports tougher regulations on the disposal of coal waste, was part of a team of 12 ecologists and engineers who provided the first comprehensive analysis of damage done by mountaintop removal mining. While in Washington, he and his colleagues also shared their scientific findings with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

High levels of selenium threaten fish survival and reproduction, he said; if they do reproduce, contaminated fish have offspring with serious birth defects. Lemly has found that newly hatched fish have crooked spines and deformed heads due to high levels of selenium. They cannot survive and reproduction will fail, he said, and the fish population could be wiped out.

“Once in the aquatic environment, waterborne selenium can enter the food chain and reach levels that are toxic to fish and wildlife,” Lemly wrote in the materials he prepared for his briefings in Washington.

Lemly has studied West Virginia’s Mud River Reservoir, which was polluted with selenium released from a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. Fifty to 60 percent of young fish were deformed because of high concentrations of selenium. Selenium levels in fish caught in some of West Virginia’s rivers are more than twice what is considered safe for human consumption. Humans need to absorb certain amounts of selenium daily, but extremely high concentrations of selenium can cause reproductive failure and birth defects.

“I specialize in fish, but that is only one part of the overall picture,” Lemly said, “Public health is also an issue with mountaintop removal mining.”

Categories: Research