Scientists warned state House and Senate committees Tuesday that mountaintop coal mining pollutes streams with toxic selenium and wipes out entire fish populations.
Dennis Lemly, a Wake Forest University research biologist, and Orie Loucks, a retired ecologist from Miami University, were on a team of scientists who made the first comprehensive analysis of damage from mountaintop removal mining. Their study was published in the journal Science.
Coal companies have blown up only four mountains in Tennessee, Lemly told the legislature’s environment committees. But he warned:
“Each one of these sites is like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. The question is how many more of these will be allowed to do so. So far, when you compare Tennessee to Kentucky and West Virginia and Virginia, there’s been very little destruction in terms of mountaintop mining. This is good because it gives you a chance to prevent these problems from happening.”
Lemly said “just a little bit” of selenium “in the water can cause big problems for fish. The selenium is absorbed, and it causes deformities and death in young fish. This type of reproductive failure can eliminate entire populations of fish. And it’s not just fish. This same toxic scenario threatens wildlife as well.”
Parroting the coal industry’s defense of mountaintop mining, Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, asked: “I’d like to know, are we seeing dead fish from these four mines [in Tennessee]?”
Lemly replied, “What you would see would be a reproductive effect which would prevent fish from successfully spawning. So the fish would essentially disappear. You would not expect to see a massive fish kill.”
The scientists testified in favor of legislation to ban mountaintop removal mining in Tennessee. The committees took no action. The bill has failed in the past two legislative sessions.
In mountaintop removal mining, coal companies blast up to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains. The resulting tons of rubble often are dumped into hollows and creeks or just piled back up on top of the mountains once the coal is extracted.