Mountaintop removal worse for endangered species than initially thought

Credit: CC0 Public Domain
New research published by journal PLOS One today shows that mountaintop mining poses a greater threat to endangered species than previously thought. Researchers from Defenders of wildlife's Center for Conservation Innovation and SkyTruth, a conservation technology nonprofit, combined water-quality data with satellite imagery to assess the extent of water quality degradation due to mountaintop removal mining activities.

Mike Evans, Senior Conservation Data Scientist at CCI, said that this research "really emphasizes the interconnectedness ecosystems" and how distant human activities can have ripple effects that don't immediately become apparent. "The ability to evaluate landscape-scale impacts opens up new avenues for conservation.

Mountaintop removal, a method of coal mining, involves clearing forests and using explosives to remove top soil or bedrock. This is then dumped in nearby valleys. Although the negative effects of this method on water quality are well-known, new research has revealed the extent of the damage.

Research found that the chronic and acute toxic thresholds for chemicals such as aluminum, lead, and copper as well as acidity levels of streams were exceedingly high in areas far removed from mines. It was previously believed that impacts were limited to the immediate vicinity of mines.

This study combined data from 30 years of satellite imagery to map large surface mines in central Appalachia, as well as water quality measurements from over 4,000 monitoring sites spread across various watersheds.

Satellite imagery shows the increase in mountaintop removal mining in the area. Credit: SkyTruth. 2021

Christian Thomas, SkyTruth's geospatial engineer, said that "we have been watching mountaintop mining expand across the Appalachian terrain for years using satellite imagery." "By combining our imagery and water-quality data, it has finally been revealed how severely this activity affects sensitive aquatic species."

Central Appalachia has a high biodiversity and streams that are impacted by the mines have many endangered and threatened species. This region covers parts of Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Virginia and West Virginia.

Evans stated that more than 50 federally-protected species live in the streams of the region. However, we don't know the impact of the mines on these species. "This research increases the capacity of federal and state agencies to make better decisions about wildlife and vulnerable people.

This study and the results of the same methods can be used to increase protections for imperiled animals and provide a more rigorous scientific basis for mine permit practices moving forward. They represent "best-available science", the legal standard required by the Endangered Species Act.

Continue reading Mountaintop mining results in 40% loss of aquatic biodiversity

More information: Michael J. Evans et. al., Linking mountaintop mining to water quality in imperiled species using satellite-based data, PLOS ONE (2021). Information from the Journal: PLoS ONE Michael J. Evans et. al., Linking mountaintop mining to water quality in imperiled species using satellite information, (2021). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239691

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