Coal energy is expected to remain a key component of the national electricity portfolio until 2040, according to the Energy Information Administration. Previous research suggests that coal mining operations can negatively impact the environment. For instance, mountaintop-mining valley fill operations, common across Appalachia, often result in bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in fish while other mining operations acidify freshwater streams. Current federal regulations, like the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977), aim to protect the environment from degradation by providing operational standards to minimize the surface impacts of mining.
However, a recent study, published in Nature Sustainability and co-authored by Freshwater Initiative researcher Julian Olden, found that despite current laws and regulations, mining operations continue to have a detrimental impact on freshwater streams. Where previous research has focused on a single mining operation or region, this study, led by Xingli Giam at the University of Tennessee (a former UW post-doctoral researcher), provides a quantitative meta-analysis of the impact of coal mining on stream health across multiple regions of the United States, according to a variety of mining operations, and under existing environmental regulations.
The study reported that streams affected by coal mining had, on average, a one-third reduction in biodiversity and only half of the total organism abundance of unaffected streams. Invertebrate, fish, and salamander species richness (e.g., the number of different species living in the stream) declined by 32%, 39%, and 28%, respectively. The study also suggests that even where federal regulations had mandated stream restoration, biodiversity and total organism abundance were still lower than unaffected streams.
The authors argue that for regulations to be effective, they must have broad, public support. It is necessary to identify bipartisan arguments for conservation that resonate across a wide variety of backgrounds and belief systems. For example, appeals to improving public health (coal mining has a high human health cost, including lung cancer and kidney disease) and recreational fishing and hunting (streams provide recreational opportunity) may both attract broad support. Without stricter regulations backed by public support, coal mining operations will continue to degrade stream health across the United States.
You can read the full study here.