MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A group of scientists called on the federal government Thursday to stop mountaintop removal mining, arguing dozens of existing studies on the practice prove its ecological impacts are "pervasive and irreversible."
In a Policy Forum opinion piece for Friday's issue of the journal Science, 12 researchers from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia argue the effects are clear, and federal regulators must stop ignoring what they call "rigorous science."
In a teleconference Thursday, lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland acknowledged it is unusual for scientists to offer a political position on their research but said her colleagues "all agree the evidence is overwhelming."
The National Mining Association, however, said some of the scientists have testified as expert witnesses for environmental groups and have what she considers "a long-standing feud" with the industry.
Palmer acknowledged she and two other scientists have testified in mining cases but said the team's time was donated, and its work was not funded by any organization.
NMA spokeswoman Carol Raulston also argues the scientists chose data selectively, ignoring water-quality information that didn't support its theories. While they're entitled to their opinion, she said, "they're incorrect in saying this review of the literature points to any new conclusions."
The scientists say mountaintop mining destroys forests and streams that can never be replaced, threatening both aquatic life and human health. Palmer also argues there is no evidence to suggest current reclamation methods are effective.
The scientists argue some of the oldest, most diverse forests in North America have been destroyed, along with 1,500 miles of Appalachian headwater streams.
The loss of trees and topsoil and the compaction of the earth by heavy equipment worsen historic problems with flooding, they argue, while runoff tainted with selenium is causing deformities in fish and could ultimately threaten human health.
The article is based on nearly three dozen studies that Duke University researcher Emily Bernhardt said federal regulators should view collectively. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers should adopt a holistic approach, she said, rather than regulating individual contaminants.
The NMA says the scientists are trying to hold the industry to an unrealistic standard when it comes to reclamation.
"They in effect say the only legitimate standard is that once mining ceases, things have to be as they were before mining occurred," Raulston said. "Neither we nor the road building industry nor the construction industry nor anyone else could be held to that standard."