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Mountaintop mining: “The science is irrefutable”

In such bitter cold as has held sway in our region these weeks, two cyclists (with a support vehicle) rolled into Jonesborough a year ago, our Town their first stop on the pedaling trip to Washington, DC.
University of Tennessee law student Sam Evans and Conservation Fisheries biologist Missy Petty would brave the season’s cold, and slick and icy roads to bring their concerns about mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, and a petition to end its stream-burial practice, to the new administration. The mountain-blasting method of coal extraction, having denuded thousands of ridgetop acres in neighboring states and covered hundreds of streams under valley fills, was headed for the Cumberland Plateau’s green mountains, their streams rich in fish and mussel species and exceptionally diverse of aquatic life.
That mountaintop mining harms streams and wildlife, economic vitality in mountain communities and their residents’ health had long been known. Assessments of many facets of it, by scientists from earth-study as well as social- and economic-study domains, had been made public in Environmental Impact Statement findings, in 2004. They had revealed hydrology scientists’ concern that the headwater streams, “collection points for all surface and groundwater within a watershed” were lost in this mining and, in the rubble and “spoil disposal” from blown-up mountains, “all water bearing strata [were] lost.” They had shown as much as one-third of the stream-generating acreage being lost in watersheds in affected mountain ranges, both fish species and benthic-creature aquatic species reduced, sometimes by two-thirds.
They had made plain the near irreversibility of forest and wildlife loss, though mined sites be “reclaimed”: such degree of compaction was necessary to stabilize slopes and prevent rockslides from mined sites that “the rooting medium,” lacking adequate aeration, nutrients and water “severely reduces tree growth.” They had noted lack of standardized methods to evaluate, and address in permits for this mining, heightened flooding potential that down-slope communities would face after removal of the mountains’ forests and their rain-absorbing soils.
But the administration, then, had loosened and “streamlined” the permitting rules, making MTR mining more widespread. The regulations of pivotal national environmental laws had been changed through executive directive or rulemaking. Federal wildlife scientists would not need to be consulted in permit review, the Clean Water Act’s “fill” rule changed to legalize stream burial, and its buffer-zone rule made discretionary in MTR mining.
Present on the National Mall on inauguration day, Mr. Evans no doubt was hearted by President Obama’s pledge to “restore science to its rightful place.” In a Science article this January 8, a group of internationally respected, U.S. experts on hydrology, engineering and ecology confirm the “severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining.”
They attest these to be pervasive and long lasting, mitigation ineffectual to reverse the damage from them, and the scientific evidence of its harm “strong and irrefutable.” The scientists’ urgent call for a moratorium on further MTR permits will be heard by the administration, one hopes, given its promise that science will inform policy, not policy bend the science.