Mountaintop mining involves blasting off the top of a mountain so excess rock can be pushed to a neighboring valley. This allows miners to more easily reach coal. 

The eco-obnoxious practice, which has doubled in the last 8 years, has buried more than 1,000 miles of Appalachian streams over the last 20 years. 

Now, residents in states like West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky are finding huge numbers of dead and deformed fish, a result of toxic selenium that leaches into rivers and streams. 

High selenium levels threaten fish survival and reproduction, and contaminated fish have offspring with serious birth defects—from crooked spines to deformed heads. Ultimately, the fish population could be wiped out. 

Selenium pollution affects fish first, so they serve as a barometer for future damage to ecosystems and human health. 

“Once in the aquatic environment, waterborne selenium can enter the food chain and reach levels that are toxic to fish and wildlife,” says Dennis Lemly, PhD, a research professor of biology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. 

“The threat is expanding as use of this destructive process expands,” he adds. “Once these ecosystems are polluted, damage to the environment is permanent.” 

Taking It to Washington, DC

Dr. Lemly, who supports tougher regulations on the disposal of coal waste, was part of a 12-member team of ecologists and engineers who provided the first comprehensive analysis of damage caused by mountaintop removal mining. He and his colleagues shared their scientific findings in February with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. 

Dr. Lemly has studied West Virginia’s Mud River Reservoir, which was polluted with selenium released from a mountaintop mining operation. Between 50% and 60% of young fish were deformed because of high selenium concentrations.

Not Fit for Human Consumption 

Selenium levels in fish caught in some of West Virginia’s rivers are more than twice what is considered safe for human consumption. 

Humans need to absorb certain amounts of selenium daily, but extremely high concentrations can cause reproductive failure and birth defects. 

“I specialize in fish, but that is only one part of the overall picture,” Dr. Lemly says. “Public health is also an issue with mountaintop removal mining.” 

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining 

Photo: nrdc_media | Creative Commons