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Mountaintop removal mining affects endangered species

A new study published in the journal PLOS One has found that mountaintop removal – a coal-mining method that clear-cuts forests and uses explosives to remove soil and bedrock – poses a significantly more serious and widespread threat to endangered animal species and humans than previously thought.

By combining 30 years of satellite imagery data mapping large surface mines in central Appalachia and water-quality measurements from over 4,000 monitoring sites across different watersheds, a team of scientists led by the Defenders of Wildlife’s Center for Conservation Innovation (CCI) discovered that mountaintop removal mining activity strongly contributes to water-quality degradation.

“We have been watching mountaintop removal mining expand across the Appalachian landscape for years using satellite imagery,” said study co-author Christian Thomas, a geospatial engineer with SkyTruth, a nonprofit environmental technological company that helped with data collection. “By combining our imagery with water-quality data, we have finally revealed how profoundly this activity harms sensitive aquatic species.”

The scientists found that chronic and acute toxicity thresholds for chemicals such as aluminum, copper, lead, and manganese, as well as acidity levels in streams were exceeded thousands of times even in places relatively distant from the mines. These areas are home to many threatened and endangered species, including 39 mollusk species, 12 fish species, and several snail and crustacean species.

“More than 50 federally protected species inhabit the streams of this region, and we haven’t historically known the full impact of these mines, until now,” said study lead author Michael Evans, a senior conservation data scientist at CCI. “This research expands the ability for state and federal agencies to make better decisions that directly affect vulnerable people and wildlife.” 

“This research really emphasizes the interconnectedness of ecosystems and how distant human activity can have ripple effects that aren’t immediately apparent. Being able to assess impacts at a landscape scale opens a completely new door for conservation,” he added.

This study is an important step forward for improving the protection of imperiled species and provide more rigorous scientific standards for mining practices. “While approved practices for assessing and permitting the operation of an individual mine may successfully mitigate impacts to immediately surrounding ecosystems, our results demonstrate that a landscape scale assessment is necessary to fully account for the impacts of surface mining on imperiled species,” the authors concluded.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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