Scientists become advocates in the most recent issue of the journal Science
In today's issue of the journal Science, twelve scientists from institutions around the country outlined the ecological and human health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. It is an impressive paper on those merits alone, but the real impact comes at the end: the scientists call for a ban on the practice. The line between science and advocacy grows blurrier by the day.
"Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses," the scientists wrote. They're not kidding about the permits—as we wrote yesterday, the EPA seems to be relaxing a few months of strong posturing on the issue, allowing at least one and maybe two projects to move forward shortly.
The authors include researchers from ground zero of the mountaintop removal issue, West Virginia University at Morgantown, and from as far away as the University of California, Berkeley. Collectively, they issue a hefty reprimand to those in charge: "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science."
The paper outlines how streams in Appalachia have been found to have severely elevated levels of sulfate, calcium, magnesium and bicarbonate ions. One survey of 78 streams affected by filling from mountaintop removal debris found that 73 had selenium concentrations several times above toxic levels. Some animals also feed on algae that can accumulate selenium at levels hundreds of times higher than that of the water itself.
The paper spends only one paragraph on human health impacts, but it leaves one wondering why this is even still a possibility:
Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. Health problems are for women and men, so effects are not simply a result of direct occupational exposure of predominantly male coal miners.
As the raft of citations in the Science paper illustrate, plenty of research has been done on the impacts of surface mining in Appalachia, but this is the first time that a group of experts have ventured out on the advocacy limb in such dramatic fashion, choosing one of the world's most respected peer-reviewed journals as their platform. They conclude that no new mountaintop removal permits should be issued "unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems." As I'm sure the authors are aware, however, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Thus, they are in effect asking for all mountaintop removal to stop.
The mining issue has already shown to be one where scientists might be willing to shed the lab coats for a bit. This summer, NASA's James Hansen joined in an act of civil disobedience and was arrested in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, to protest mountaintop removal. And now with this paper, perhaps others will start speaking out as well.
Bravo, scientists. Bravo.