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Researchers to Study Mountaintop Mining’s Effect on Watersheds

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Researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) have received more than $600,000 to study watersheds in southern coalfields and truly gauge the effect on these ecosystems of mountaintop mining, the Associated Press reports.

By studying the watersheds’ health, scientists hope to reconcile environmental concerns and the permitting process, said Todd Petty, the lead researcher. It might be possible to structure the post-mining restoration so as to benefit watersheds instead of destroy them, he told the AP.

“Much of the current debate over mountaintop mining focuses on the impacts of mining to water resources,” Petty, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife resources, told AP. “This debate neglects the fact that many of the watersheds are already in poor condition for a lot of reasons, such as historic mining, other development activities and untreated wastewater.”

About half the money, or $300,000, is coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This will fund research in the watersheds of the Gauley, Kanawha, Coal and Guyandotte rivers, as well as Twelvepole Creek and Tug Fork, according to WVU’s website. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is providing $330,000 for WVU researchers to undertake related work assessing the potential benefits of stream mitigation projects that coal companies could include in their plans to soften the impact of mining, the WVU site said.

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The funding disclosure comes in the wake of the EPA’s Jan. 13 revocation of water permits for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 Mine, which would have been one of the largest mountaintop mining endeavors in the country. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had okayed the plan in the late 1990s, the EPA concluded after an extensive review that the project would have choked off streams in surrounding areas.

Last week coal-industry supporters, along with politicians and miners, converged on the West Virginia state capitol to protest the EPA’s move. The WVU researchers are hoping to find ways to preserve the environment while continuing to mine the coal with the cost savings attributed to mountaintop mining.

“Coal mining is incredibly important to West Virginia’s economy, and the health of the state’s river systems is equally important to the well-being of its citizens. The intensity of the debate over the Spruce #1 Mine permit has shown us just how important these things are,” Petty wrote on WVU’s website. He added that the combination of economic and environmental priorities makes it “absolutely necessary that we succeed in facilitating the mine permitting process while ensuring benefits to watershed health through strategic restoration activities.”