email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMining the Summits
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In or out of the courtroom, the argument often boils down to differing opinions as to what constitutes a regulated stream in Appalachia, how vital its uppermost reaches might be to the ecological health of the downstream watershed, and finally the degree to which valley fill might contribute to flooding in a peak storm event.

The defenders of valley fills argue that most of these structures affect intermittent streams only and therefore do not fall within the reach of the Army Engineers and the Clean Water Act. William Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, believes many fill areas are simply "dry hollows" for most of the year, implying that they serve little ecological function.

But that's not the way Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, sees it. According to Stout, aquatic insects in seep springs at the top of a watershed feed larger life-forms by shredding leaf litter and sending the nutrient-rich particles downstream. "These insects provide the link between a forest and a river," Stout says. "Bury their habitat and you lose the link."

The issue of flooding also evokes conflicting views. Raney sees no connection between mountaintop mining and floods. "Science doesn't bear that out," he told me during an interview in his Charleston office. "What causes flooding is too much water falling in too short a time."

Yet a study by federal regulators, obtained by the Charleston Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act, predicted that one valley fill at the Hobet 21 mine could increase peak runoff flow by as much as 42 percent. Vivian Stockman, a project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, contends that 12 West Virginians have died since 2001 because of floods related to mountaintop mining. "Old-timers will tell you property that has been in their families for generations never flooded severely until mining began upstream," Stockman says. "It's common sense. Denuded landscapes don't hold water the way forests do."

It was not the intent of Smackra, of course, to allow coal companies to walk away from their surface mines and leave them denuded. Stripped mountainsides, the law declared, must be restored to their "approximate original contour" and stabilized with grasses and shrubs, and, if possible, trees. But putting the entire top of a topped-off mountain back together again was an altogether different—and more expensive—matter. So mountaintop mines were given a blanket exemption from this requirement with the understanding that, in lieu of contoured restoration, the resulting plateau would be put to some beneficial public use. Coal boosters claimed the sites would create West Virginia's own Field of Dreams, seeding housing, schools, recreational facilities, and jobs galore. In most cases it didn't work out that way. The most common "use" turned out to be pastureland (in a region ill-suited for livestock production) or what the industry and its regulators like to identify as fish and wildlife habitat.

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