I spot a mountain peak covered in dense forest, then another and another. But then, where I expect to see yet another forested mountaintop, I see instead a stunted plateau—a mountain whose once distinct peak has been chopped off, flattened and denuded of vegetation.
My eyes continue to scan the distance as we drive through the coal country of West Virginia. What I first thought was an anomaly now appears to be the dominant pattern: flattened bare peak; flattened bare peak; mountain peak covered in dense forest; flattened bare peak; flattened bare peak; flattened bare peak. Beheaded mountaintops and towering metal-processing centers dripping hundreds of tons of black dust—these have become the norm in West Virginia, as mining companies blow off the peaks of the Appalachians to get at the underlying coal.
I settle back into the passenger’s seat of the truck we’re driving and ponder my observations. Is it just that the physical geography of the land has been altered or is there a difference in the chemistry and biology of the environment, too? I’ve read numerous reports of fish with curved spines and other deformities caught in this region—symptoms of high selenium contamination, which occur predominantly in mining-impacted streams. That gives me a strong suspicion the chemical and biological alteration of the landscape is as complete as the physical changes are. Unfortunately, on this first trip to the state I am unable to confirm my suspicion.
When I return one year later, however, I’m prepared to collect the data and find the answers. I travel the same highway, but this time I turn onto a small, windy, gravel road. I wave as an ATV full of fishermen eases its way around the truck on the narrow path and then pulls over next to a stream. I get out, don my chest-high waders, and wander into the water.
I pull out a metal wand connected to a digital screen. By putting this sensor into the water, I can determine the amount of free-floating ions—positively or negatively charged atoms and molecules—some of which might be harmful, others harmless. A healthy stream will have a small number of ions, but one impacted by mountaintop mining can have up to 10 times this value. My reading today shows the stream that I’m standing in, which is close to a peakless mountain, has five times the ion concentration of the one I measured earlier in the morning.
After collecting water samples to analyze in the laboratory, I begin to kick around in the stream. Some of this kicking is the result of my frustration with the mining companies for causing such severe physical and chemical changes to the landscape. But mostly I am kicking around to loosen rocks and free any insects that may be living under or next to them. I hold a small net downstream of where I’m kicking, ready to catch these insects before they float away. After a few minutes I grab my net and have a seat on the stream bank to begin picking out the small bugs from among the leaf bits and sediment that have also entered the net.
By identifying the species as well as the number of individuals of each, I can determine the stream’s health—these small insects are extremely sensitive to contamination and can be used to indicate how much the water is affected by mining. This stream’s health, in turn, will impact the health of larger animals that live in the water such as salamanders and fish, which consume the insects. As I suspected, and as I’ve read about from other studies, the overall number of species I find is low. This does not bode well for more familiar charismatic animals that we love, such as deer, beavers and bears.
With a heavy heart, I record my findings in my notebook, pack my equipment back into the truck and continue down the road to record the chemistry and biology in the region’s other mined and unmined streams. Later, in the laboratory I will analyze the water samples I collected and find contaminants such as selenium are highly elevated in mining-impacted streams, which explains the fish with curved spines—birth deformities caused by these high selenium concentrations. It’s not just flattened bare peaks that have become the norm in mountaintop-mined West Virginia but also the pollution of streams and reduction in insects and animals that cannot survive under these conditions.
These peakless mountains and curved-spine fish are the hidden consequences of coal extraction and use. The impacts are present on the landscape even before the coal is burned and remain for decades after it has been consumed. No amount of remediation can rebuild the tops of these mountains, remove the pollution that has already been released or restore the species that have been lost from these streams. We must take action now to reduce coal consumption and thereby reduce the destructive mining practices that are devastating West Virginia.