Todd Petty, an associate professor of wildlife and fisheries resources in West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is keenly aware of what some might see as competing concerns.
“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 said. In his view, this 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.”
Petty and colleagues have received more than $600,000 to help refine that process for the benefit of both the economy and the environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided $300,000 to support Cumulative Impact Assessments in the region where mountain-top mining is practiced.
“We characterize land cover disturbance factors such as mining and residential development, and then we relate those disturbances to stream water quality and biological community composition,” Petty said. “From the models that we develop in this process, we are able to then project future conditions of aquatic resources under a range of alternative development scenarios.”
The study area for this is the entire southern tier of West Virginia watersheds the Gauley, Kanawha, Coal and Gyandotte rivers; Twelvepole Creek; Tug Fork; and portions of Kentucky.
Petty’s collaborators on the project include Michael P. Strager, an assistant professor of resource economics in WVU’s Davis College, and Paul F. Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute in the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at WVU.
Ziemkiewicz pointed out that this alternative futures model allows agencies and companies to evaluate the cumulative effects of mining on stream chemistry.
“However, there are important things that we do not know,” Ziemkiewicz added. “How quickly will sulfate leach out of the rock? What benefits can be gained from improved mining practices? Perhaps most importantly, while we know the effects of elevated conductivity on insects we need to better understand what the fishery needs in order to meet the requirements of the State’s narrative water quality standard.” Once understood, these factors can be easily added to the model to provide more robust predictions in the future.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has provided an additional $330,000 to conduct a complementary analysis where WVU researchers assess the potential benefits associated with stream mitigation projects that coal companies may propose to help offset unavoidable mining impacts.
“Mitigation projects may include stream channel reconstruction, construction of storm-water management systems, or improved municipal waste water treatment, especially of what’s called ‘gray water’,” Petty said. “In this project we will be monitoring the ecological benefits of several mitigation projects that have been implemented by the state and by coal companies in the region.”
Information from this will then be built into the cumulative impact modeling tool so that researchers can project the net impacts or benefits of a combined mine development and stream mitigation proposal.
Petty, Strager and Ziemkiewicz are joined by Eric Miller, a graduate student in wildlife and fisheries resources, for the WV DEP project.
Perhaps the most important element of the overall project is that it provides a framework for new mine development within an overall watershed improvement process.
“Much of the current debate over mountain-top mining focuses on the impacts of mining to water resources,” Petty said. “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.
“Our approach allows us to factor in multiple stressors within a watershed and direct mitigation actions in a way that has the potential for producing benefits to water resources at a watershed scale. In other words, we identify scenarios that minimize mining impacts and maximize mitigation benefits at the watershed scale,” Petty continued. “In the end this creates opportunities to foster economic activity through mining while also facilitating improvement to overall environmental conditions.”
In July of 2010, Petty and colleague Kyle Hartman, a professor of wildlife and fisheries resources, participated in a U.S. Environmental Protection Science Advisory Board, which was established to comment on the practice of mountaintop mining and its effect on water resources.
CONTACT: Todd Petty, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
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