Cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining on an Appalachian watershed
Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
Mountaintop mining is the dominant form of coal mining and the largest driver of land cover change in the central Appalachians. The waste rock from these surface mines is disposed of in the adjacent river valleys, leading to a burial of headwater streams and dramatic increases in salinity and trace metal concentrations immediately downstream. In this synoptic study we document the cumulative impact of more than 100 mining discharge outlets and approximately 28 km2 of active and reclaimed surface coal mines on the Upper Mud River of West Virginia. We measured the concentrations of major and trace elements within the tributaries and the mainstem and found that upstream of the mines water quality was equivalent to state reference sites. However, as eight separate mining-impacted tributaries contributed their flow, conductivity and the concentrations of selenium, sulfate, magnesium, and other inorganic solutes increased at a rate directly proportional to the upstream areal extent of mining. We found strong linear correlations between the concentrations of these contaminants in the river and the proportion of the contributing watershed in surface mines. All tributaries draining mountaintop-mining-impacted catchments were characterized by high conductivity and increased sulfate concentration, while concentrations of some solutes such as Se, Sr, and N were lower in the two tributaries draining reclaimed mines. Our results demonstrate the cumulative impact of multiple mines within a single catchment and provide evidence that mines reclaimed nearly two decades ago continue to contribute significantly to water quality degradation within this watershed.
T. Ty Lindberg, Emily S. Bernhardt, Raven Bier, A. M. Helton, R. Brittany Merola, Avner Vengosh, and Richard T. Di Giulio (2011) – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America