It’s no doubt that the current political climate has many natural resource professionals on edge. Jobs are being cut, budgets are dwindling, and some of us are even questioning whether we will be able to release the results of research we have dedicated our lives to- research that is vital to heal the wounds that remain after centuries of environmental neglect.
Believe it or not, that is not a political statement. It is almost un-American how little I keep up with current events, especially in politics. And, I try to not let my opinions be swayed by my friends, family, social media, or fly-by-night news sources. To do politics “right” requires a lot of fact checking and research, and so I don’t have all the information necessary to form an opinion about many hot topic issues. But, when politics enter your wheelhouse, you feel a little more compelled to speak out.
Recently, the House of Representatives and the Senate (of which Republicans own the majority vote) both repealed a ruling from the Obama administration that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris into streams. The regulation also required pre-mining assessment reports of the ecosystem and assurance that mining activities would cause no hydrological disturbance. The original law was meant, in large part, to regulate mountaintop removal mining where (as the name suggests) entire mountain tops are blown up to access coal seams that lie underneath. As you can imagine, this creates a lot of debris, and most commonly that debris was dumped into surrounding valleys. And, you know what else are in valleys? Streams. An estimated 2,000 miles of headwater streams have been buried by coal debris since the 1990s.
Debris is rarely dumped into rivers and larger streams, but rather the target is small, sometime intermittent headwaters. The streams, though tiny, hold some of the highest diversity of fish (including brook trout), macroinvertebrates, and amphibians in the United States. Many of these species are threatened or endangered, and are highly endemic; occupying only a few streams in the entire world. Yet, with a couple dumps of the backhoe, coal debris fills in valleys and completely removes entire streams (and the organisms in them) from the map.
But, the effects are felt even downstream where water quality is degraded with high concentrations of heavy metals, high conductivity (a measure of the concentration of ions in the water), and levels of some chemicals (such as selenium) that are toxic to fish and even lethal to laboratory-tested animals. And, it’s not only aquatic life that is harmed as terrestrial species (like birds) that eat fish and macroinvertebrates are poisoned by toxins in their prey. Unfortunately, once mining debris is dumped into a valley, ecosystem recovery is very difficult to achieve. Even decades later, areas downstream of a dumping site have significantly fewer fish and macroinvertebrates than reference control reaches.
Why Congress repealed this “dumping regulation” is debatable. Some believe it was an easy target, as it was passed in mid-December making it repealable under the Congressional Review Act (which, by the way, could soon cause many other newly inked regulations to be overturned). Others believe that the bill was unfair to coal companies and it made it significantly more expensive, and even impossible, to mine many sites adjacent to streams. If nothing else, most agreed that the wording of the regulation was hopelessly complex, leaving many to feel like it was nothing more than bureaucratic red tape.
News that the dumping regulation was being repealed had many rejoicing at the thought of a resurgence of big coal, particularly in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky where coal mining was once much more prevalent than today. I’m one of the first to recognize that human-environment interactions are give and take. Sometimes situations arise were we can’t prevent negative impacts on the environment if we are to complete a project that, ultimately, is for human good.
But, reckless coal mining, the type of coal mining that will be permissible if the dumping regulation is repealed, is not one. In my former life I was a Master’s student at Virginia Tech studying an undescribed species of minnow found almost exclusively in watersheds with mining activity. Brought to the area to study fish, I found myself equally interested in the social dynamics of mining. These boom-and-bust towns are shells of their former selves, and hidden beneath the overgrown shrubs and collapsing buildings are signs of a once vibrant community. Remaining families depend almost entirely on coal to put food on their tables, and in recent years lucrative positions in mining have become increasingly rare. These families are proud of their heritage of hard work and dedication. At the same time, they are praying for assistance, and I can only image that repeal of the dumping regulation (and several other regulations pertaining to natural resource extraction) has many excited about the potential for revitalization and new, better career opportunities. A “way out” of hard times that have fallen.
I cannot pretend to know what is best for these coal communities. Coal is a culture, one with which I cannot relate. Nor can I predict with any certainty the economic ramifications that repeal of the dumping regulation could have. But, I do know that the idea of coal saving these communities has been oversold. Though many believe declines in coal production are the result of more stringent regulations (like the dumping regulation) the truth is that it has been outpriced by natural gas and phased out by a trend towards using more sustainable energy sources. Further, while repeal of mining regulations could increase production, it will also likely result in increased prevalence of illnesses and cancers that are common in coal communities when drinking water becomes contaminated. So the more likely reality, the reality that seems hidden from many discussions recently, is that increased, less regulated coal mining will result in short-term increases in coal production, and much longer-term decreases to human and ecosystem health.
As of today, the repeal of the dumping regulation awaits President Trump’s signature. If he signs, as he is expected to do, decades of restoration and reclamation and improvements to rural living conditions, will be threatened.
If you want to read more about the effects of debris dumping, click here