The Mayfly: David to Mountaintop Mining’s Goliath?

Friday, April 15, 2011

dreamstime_5493211 “Mayfly imitations and woolly buggers have been doing well when the water does get up,” is the last word on trout lures from the Appalachian Angler, a fisherman’s blog. The real thing is the common mayfly, a small insect that constitutes the filets mignon for trout and much that swims in the creeks and rivers of Appalachia. That’s the mountainous region running from central New York down through the Virginias to eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, where the hills are virtually made of coal. This Mayfly is about to become the nemesis of the coal barons who have spent the last 30 years or so removing the tops of hundreds of mountains, denuding some 2040  square miles of forest and topsoil, and burying some 2000 miles of streams in the region.

There are basically two ways to mine coal: one is to drill shafts into the mountains and dig it out through horizontal tunnels deep in the earth – just like in the movies. The other is to take it from the mountaintops: cut or burn all the trees, dynamite and scrape off the all the rocks and earth – maybe the top hundred feet or so of the mountain – and dump it all into the valleys. When that’s finished, you dig out the exposed coal and ship it out in giant trucks on giant roads cut into the mountain.

The first is labor intensive and costs about twice as much as the second, so although the first leaves the green mountains – and the animals and the fish in the rivers at the bottom of the valleys – relatively intact, the second has gained ground among those to whom the environment is just another obstacle to making money. (For such people, “the environment” is something to be preserved only where they vacation or live.) In Appalachia, however, that may be about to change, thanks to the common mayfly, whose absence is the equivalent of the dead canary in the coal mine: where there a no mayflies, the water has been polluted by mine runoff.

image Earnest environmentalists and Environmental Protection Agency staff members have been trying to stop mountaintop mining for a couple of generations, but have only been able to mount a rear-guard action, especially in the southern end of Appalachia, where the coal companies’ control of state legislators and agencies has given the technology free rein. Encouraged under Reagan, ignored during Clinton’s tenure, it was cheered on by George W’s appointees. Under Bush, it was able to flout the Clean Water Act under a special “clarification:” since using streams as a landfill for mining waste is illegal under the Act, Bush’s EPA said that the waste from mountaintop mining was really “fill,” which could be dumped at will. In 2004, the Office of Surface Mining (Department of the Interior) conveniently changed the rules to allow the companies to operate within 100 feet of a stream, a practice which even Reagan’s administration had forbidden.

The humble mayfly may put paid to all of this, the same way the spotted owl saved much of what was left of the old growth forests of the west. In 1992, with much of old growth forests still being clear-cut, the declaration of the spotted owl as an endangered species caused 2.4 million acres in the northwest to be shut to logging – something that no other existing law could have done. Now, the EPA says, new mines will have to show that the pollution they cause will not prevent the presence of mayflies, something tough do, as these aquatic insects seem to be very sensitive to the quality of the water in which they hatch and over which they hover as adults. The chemicals released from earth that is dumped into valley stream beds, such as selenium and sulfates, change the water chemistry and make it toxic to many indigenous life forms – including mayflies.

image Our alliance with the mayflies should not be necessary. Coal mines operate under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which requires each mining company to post bond to restore the each to the pre-mining use or a reasonably likely higher use. But what the mountaintop mining companies actually do when they finish with a site is truck in enough earth to form a layer a few feet thick and seed it with grass and quickly growing plants, many of them non-native. Then they claim they have provided a higher use: the website for Kentucky Coal declares that what they provide is “flatter, more useful land on top of the mountain.” “Mountaintop removal in Kentucky,” the site says, “has been very positive. This mining practice only impacts the top 10% of the mountain, provides much needed and valuable level land….and leaves the land many times more valuable than prior to mining.”

The Kentucky Coal site goes on to praise the fact that much of “reclaimed” land contains numerous ponds, as if these were scenic wonders. The truth is that these are settling ponds containing mine runoff, or sludge ponds, both laden with toxic materials. In 2007, a ruling stopped the creation of such ponds and halted much of the mountaintop removal mining, but that was reversed by a higher court in 2009. For environmentalists, the humble mayfly may yet be David to mining’s Goliath, but it is likely to be merely a battle in a long and ugly war.

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