New study documents cumulative impact of mountaintop mining

Increased salinity and concentrations of trace elements in one West Virginia watershed have been tied directly to multiple surface coal mines upstream by a detailed new survey of stream chemistry. The Duke University team that conducted the study said it provides new evidence of the cumulative effects multiple mountaintop mining permits can have in a river network.

"Our analysis of water samples from 23 sites along West Virginia's Upper Mud River and its tributaries shows that salinity and trace element concentrations, including selenium, increased at a rate directly proportional to the cumulative amount of surface mining in the watershed," said Duke researcher Ty Lindberg. "We found a strong linear correlation."

Changes in water quality due to the increased salinity in the Upper Mud from mine runoff also were found to be "exceptionally persistent," Lindberg said. "Mines reclaimed almost two decades ago are continuing to release effluents with salinity similar to active mines in the region."

The Duke team's study appears this week in the peer-reviewed online Early Edition of the .

In , companies use explosives and heavy machinery to clear away surface rocks and extract shallow deposits of high-quality coal below. The companies typically dispose of the waste rock in adjacent valleys, where it buries existing headwater streams.

To assess the cumulative impact of the more than 100 permitted discharge outlets draining approximately 28 square kilometers of active and reclaimed mountaintop coal mines in the Upper Mud watershed, the Duke researchers collected 152 sets of samples from 23 sites – including two sites upstream of any active or reclaimed surface mines – between May and December 2010. They sampled for electrical conductivity, a measure of salinity and for concentrations of major ions and trace elements derived from coal or its matrix rock.

All conductivity measurements taken downstream of mine discharge outlets exceeded levels known to be harmful to aquatic life, said Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology. At the two sampling sites upstream of any mines, conductivity levels were within an acceptable range. Concentrations of selenium, a known fish toxin, followed a similar trend, Di Giulio said. The researchers also observed deformities typical of selenium exposure in fish collected from downstream waters.

"As eight separate mining-impacted tributaries flowed into the Upper Mud, conductivity and concentrations of selenium, sulfate, magnesium and other inorganic solutes increased proportionately," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality. "Nearly 90 percent of the variation in trace elements and salinity could be explained by the amount of upstream surface mining."

The Upper Mud flows through sparsely populated sections of Boone and Lincoln counties in southern West Virginia as a headwater stream until reaching its impoundment in the Mud River reservoir 25 kilometers downstream. For about 10 kilometers, the river passes through the Hobet 21 surface mining complex, which has been active since the 1970s and is among the largest in the Appalachian coalfields region.

The Duke team selected the Upper Mud watershed for their field survey because water-quality impacts from other potential sources are largely absent. Historically, surface rather than underground mining has been the dominant form of coal extraction in the Upper Mud's river basin, and there are very few people now living within the Hobet mine's permitted boundary. This helped to minimize other factors that might account for changes in water quality.

"This is a remarkably clean dataset and that's why it's so powerful," said Emily Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry. "We see these incredibly strong patterns, which previously have not been well established."

Past studies have shown that individual mines profoundly impact stream water quality, biological community structure and ecosystem function immediately downstream of valley fills, but empirical data on the cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations on larger downstream rivers has been lacking, she said.

"Individual permitting decisions are typically made without consideration of the extent of historic mining impacts already occurring within a watershed," Bernhardt said. "Our survey helps fill that gap."

Duke PhD students Raven Bier and Brittany Merola and postdoctoral researcher Ashley Helton co-authored the study.

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Dec 12, 2011
A clear case of politically-motivated, liberal commie socialist researcher tampering, with the goal in mind of hindering the otherwise god-given right of Big Coal to make a profit.
Afterall, everyone knows that mining creates jobs, makes the breathing just that much easier and the living more pleasant and healthful for man, beast, fish and fowl.
Betcha those damned pinko Duke University OWS sympathisers contaminated those samples ON PURPOSE, just to make it look like the mining company was up to no good...

Dec 12, 2011
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Dec 12, 2011
I'm leaning toward alien intervention so as to stop the destruction of their mountain top landing sites.

Dec 13, 2011
Now that we know that pinko commie liberal radicals fabricated this data, we can also conclude that hydrofracking is environmentally friendly, and, therefore, clean coal is exactly as titled.

Dec 13, 2011
You guys should look up Selenium on wiki. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how much of it they found in the water. Unfortunately, they don't say in the article. Selenium is used in dietary suplements as an antioxidant, and is vital to most living things in low quantities. Some plants also produce fatal quantities of Selenium as a defense against parasites and herbivores. Selenium over-concentration in waterways can result from ANY disturbance of water run-off paths, not just mining. Building a developement, planting a forest, clearing a field, etc.

The findings in the above report aren't the disaster you are assuming. By the way, I can't find anything official linking fish deformities to Selenium. The wiki says fish are a source of selenium, as the collect it in their thyroid gland and turn it into other antioxidant compounds.

I know it's hard, but try reading a little before you believe every doom and gloom story you read.

Dec 13, 2011
Nearly 90 percent of the variation in trace elements and salinity could be explained by the amount of upstream surface mining


..or it could be the presence of coal in the ground, and the selenium in the water shed in that region 'could' have existed prior to the mining operations. Coal and sulfur are known to be associated with Selenium in the ground. That would explain why the selenium continues even after the mining stops.

This sound a lot like the stories you see about natural gas in water near gas mining operations, but they 'forget' to tell you that there was gas in the water before anybody started mining it. In some cases, that's how the gas was discovered, and there are stories of 'flamable water' that date back to long before natural gas mining began.

Dec 13, 2011
You guys should look up Selenium on wiki.
or better google 'Pathology of selenium poisoning in fish' where is states that as low as 7x dietary requirements it can cause toxicity at biochemical, cellular, organ, and system levels.

Dec 13, 2011
Good find underbridge. Thanks.

Too bad the article here doesn't say what the level actually was. Either way, it's not certain that mining is the cause. That could have been the case before anybody started mining. There are many cases of naturally occurring toxins in water. That's why you have to get water tested before you can drill a well for residential well water. In many cases it isn't suitable for consumption.

Dec 14, 2011
G7, you have to be a paid for by the mining industry.
Either way, it's not certain that mining is the cause.

That could have been the case before anybody started mining.

You really raise a lot of doubt about an issue that should be pretty cut and dry. Mining = pollution. Coal mining companies tend to be masters of propaganda. They make claims about how many people they employ, but when it comes to facts, they are just robbers, liers and cheats. Coal mining companies really suck. I'm so glad to be solar.

Dec 14, 2011
No, I'm just a paycheck to paycheck single dad trying to make ends meet. I don't have a vested interest in either your side or the other side. I'm a truely neutral 3rd party. People like me get screwed equally by both Big Oil and Big Green, so I don't like the BS that comes from either of them. I don't think 1 out of 100 news stories tells the whole truth, no matter what news source you go to. It can take most of a day just to get the facts straight on any given story, so nobody has the time to cross check all of them. I just do the best I can to understand and try to sort through all the editorial nonsense to get to the facts. People like you do not help.

The only reason it seems like I am pro-industry is because the mojority of nonsense on this site is anti-industry. I'm an equal opportunity guy in that regard, there just isn't much pro-industry nonsense here for me to argue with. There's plenty on other sites, just not here.

Dec 14, 2011
wow, check out this breaking story:


And these are the people we are supposed to trust? The full legal filing against them is available here as a PDF:


Dec 14, 2011
The only reason it seems like I am pro-industry is because the mojority of nonsense on this site is anti-industry.

Might that owe to the fact that very much of Big Business is antithetical to the preservation of a verdant and vibrant environment?

If you lived in or close to coal mining territories you might have a more informed perspective.

Dec 15, 2011
Well G7, I apologize if I ever was offensive to you. Still your positions and posts on this really make me think you have a bias. A bias that is not to be confused with skepticism. To be honest, I've never seen a "GOOD" coal company. I've never seen a "GOOD" oil company either. Sure they provide product, but what they leave behind is usually a wasteland that has to be cleaned up at tax payer expense.

Dec 15, 2011
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, with anthracite coal mining to the east, and bituminous to the west. In addition to lands being raped, we've got villages sitting atop coal seams than have been burning underground for decades.

And, now, we've got the frackers spewing methane and chemicals into the aquifers and dumping their contaminated wastes into streams and rivers.

Anyone who maintains that mining and drilling is not destructive of the habitat is either naive, willfully ignorant, or caring only of the monetary rewards.

Dec 15, 2011
Totally unrelated to this topic, but you guys might like to ponder this one. Apparently there's an international effort to figure out who stole/released the Climategate emails. Police in England raided the home of one blogger, and Wordpress has been asked to preserve information on their servers connected to at least two other skeptic blog sites. I assume there's more to this story to come as details are revealed.


I wonder what they hope to find on that guy's personal hard drives? This raises all kinds of questions in my mind, in regard to jurisdiction and civil rights.

It looks like DoJ asked Wordpress not to tell the account holders, but Wordpress told them anyway, so the police moved to grab computers asap. I don't think any of the bloggers are suspected of being the email thief, it looks like they are hoping to figure out who it is though.

Yet UofV & UEA are fighting FOIA requests.

Dec 20, 2011
I just read another article about a global warming feed back mechanism appearing in the Arctic. Apparently mile size methane bubble events are starting to pop through the thinned ice. They have been observed in the Russian Arctic and other Arctic areas and have been predicted as a consequence of global warming. There is still many years of global warming ahead, but with the addition of giant methane bubbles seeping from the Arctic ocean how quickly will global temperatures rise?

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