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Science & Tech


Study: Coal removal harming fish, water

– In West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, fish are vanishing.

The number of species has fallen, the populations of those that remain are down, and some individual fish look a little skinny.

A government study traces the decline in abundance to mountaintop removal, the coal-mining practice of clear-cutting trees from mountains before blowing off their tops with explosives.

When the resulting rain of shattered rock hits the rivers and streams that snake along the base of the mountains, minerals released from within the stone are changing the water’s chemistry, the study said, lowering its quality and causing tiny prey such as insects, worms and invertebrates to die.

“We’re seeing significant reductions in the number of fish species and total abundance of fish downstream from mining operations,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a research fish biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Kearneysville, West Virginia., and one of the study’s two authors.

Hitt and his co-author, Doug Chambers, a biologist and water-quality specialist in the Charleston, West Virginia., office of the USGS, took a 1999 study of the Guyandotte River basin’s fish populations by Penn State researchers to compare them over time.

For two years starting in 2010, they sampled the populations in waters downstream from an active mountaintop coal-mining operation. In one of the sample areas, the Mud River watershed, which contains the largest tributary of the Guyandotte River, at least “100 point source pollution discharge permits associated with surface mining have been issued,” the study said.

Hitt and Chambers found that the number of species was cut in half and the abundance of fish fell by a third. The silverjaw minnow, rosyface shiner, silver shiner, bluntnose minnow, spotted bass and largemouth bass, along with at least two other species detected before their study, were no longer there.

Research such as the USGS’s study of mountaintop mining is viewed with suspicion in coal country, where mining operations provide thousands of jobs.

“The people opposed to the coal industry are trying to pile on with more studies,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “It sounds like this is one of those studies that sets out to show there’s harm done. It sounds like perhaps more of the same.”