Rivers and streams in West Virginia are just one of the natural beauties that the state has to offer, but human-induced environmental pollutants are still compromising the fate of their future. We have already looked at how acid mine drainage (AMD) and acid rain has contributed to the toxicity in these bodies of water, now we will focus on mountaintop removal.
Photo By: John McQuaid
Mountaintop removal was introduced with the intentions of creating a safer alternative to traditional coal mines, but it has done just the opposite. Mountaintop removal is done by surface mining the tops of mountains and ridge lines. When they are finished, they need somewhere to dump all of the overburden, which ends up being in empty hollows that once flourished with wildlife. The problem with this is that dumping these massive amounts of overburden into these hollows ultimately destroys headwater streams, which are crucial to a mountain’s ecosystem.
In particular, Laurel Branch Hollow has been damaged because of mountaintop removal. Laurel Branch Hollow is located in the southeastern region of West Virginia in Monroe County, along the Virginia border. It is being damaged by the Hobet 21 Coal Mining Operation.
Authorities said dumping overburden in these areas such as Laurel Branch was alright because it was barren, with not much being there to begin with. According to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, this just isn’t true. Laurel Branch use to be filled with microbes and insect life that would become a buffet for the birds, fish, and amphibians living in it. This all ended when it was used for a fill site.
As rainwater runs through these hollows (or fills) and dismantled mountainsides of Hobet 21, it collects minerals and pollutants that are harmful to the delicate chemistry of streams and rivers for miles downstream. Laurel Branch and multiple others feed into the Mud River. The Mud River is now heavily contaminated with selenium, which is a heavy metal that is working its way up the food chain in ever-greater concentrations. Studies have associated it with deformities found in fish larvae, including curved spines and two eyes on one side.
Not only does this mess with the ecosystems of these streams and rivers, but it can also produce harm to humans living in these areas who use well water. Opposed to tap water that people living in cities use, people living in rural areas usually get their water from wells, and underground streams that go through a purification process. But these pollutants have been so extreme that they can’t be purified. Some people in these areas have experienced rashes and burns after taking showers or baths because the water was contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. In similar instances, other people have experienced decay in their tooth enamel because they were drinking this water. The federal government has also said that these heavy metals could lead to cancer, kidney damage, and central nervous system damage.
While the Obama administration has taken measures to tighten the regulations on mountaintop removal, these streams and rivers are still at risk as long as the practice continues to be legal. Tightening the measures just isn’t enough, and that’s not even promising that these streams and rivers can ever be restored, it might be too late. A University of Maryland study of 37,000 streams and rivers reclamation projects said that it had found none to be successfully restored after the damage of surface mining had already occurred.
I will be interested to see what our government will do about this problem, whether they continue to tighten regulations or to make it illegal. Either way, I will be more interested to see if we can do anything about what has already been done…the fate of not only West Virginia’s streams and rivers, but Appalachia as a whole, depends on it.