This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The mountains and valleys of Appalachia bear the scars of a common practice: mountaintop removal mining. It's a cheap and easy way to get coal out of the ground, but it is messy and it's inspired a lot of controversy and lawsuits. Now a team of scientists is saying the evidence of environmental damage is so overwhelming, that the practice should be stopped.

NPR's Christopher Joyce explains.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: You can say this for mountaintop removal mining: The name is dead on. That's exactly what mining companies do. They strip the trees from the top of the mountain, blast off the rock or overburden and dig down to get the coal below. It's pretty efficient and cheap to mine this way, but a big problem is the coarse rock that used to be the mountaintop. It's got to go somewhere, and in Appalachia, that means down the mountainside. It becomes what's called valley fill.

Margaret Palmer is a biologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who studied what happens in a valley fill.

Ms. MARGARET PALMER (Biologist, University of Maryland for Environmental Science): You expose material that, when it rains and water percolates through that, it dissolves a lot of chemicals, and those are very persistent in the streams below valley fill sites.

JOYCE: Chemicals like selenium, which can harm fish and other aquatic life; and sulfates, which alter the water chemistry. The scientists say many organisms in these valley streams, from algae to fish and birds, could be seriously harmed.

Writing in the journal Science, Palmer and 11 other scientists reviewed research on the biological effects of mountaintop mining. They say those chemicals stick around.

Ms. PALMER: Even after a site has been reclaimed and attempts have been made to re-vegetate it, the streams that remain below that that weren't filled have high levels of all sorts of nasty things.

JOYCE: So, they say mountaintop mining should be stopped. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has been holding up almost 80 permits for new mines to give them extra environmental scrutiny. And at a Senate hearing last year, EPA water expert John Randy Pomponio said the agency doesn't really know how bad the stream damage is.

Mr. JOHN RANDY POMPONIO (Water Expert, Environmental Protection Agency): These little streams are like capillaries in your blood system. They are what travel through the landscape and capture the pollutants, clean those pollutants, and we frankly don't know where the tipping point is in losing one stream, five streams, 18 streams in a particular watershed.

JOYCE: Pomponio told the Senate that mines in some valleys are so large now, their footprint covers as much as one-third of the watershed, a watershed being the whole area through which water flows into a valley. He also said the EPA has not done a good job of assessing the cumulative effect of all this mining.

While the EPA reviews the science, the mining industry in West Virginia is growing unhappy with the go-slow approach. Randy Huffman is secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

Mr. RANDY HUFFMAN (Secretary, Department of Environmental Protection, West Virginia): They just shut everything down, basically, and it kind of turned industry on its head.

JOYCE: Huffman says new requests for mining permits in West Virginia are getting closer inspection from his department and some should go ahead while regulators are looking for solutions. As for the pollutants the scientists listed, he says they've created a worst-case scenario.

Mr. HUFFMAN: If you wanted to look at 30 years of coal mining in Appalachia and pick out the worst of everything that's ever happened and put it on two pages, you can do that and it looks like that's what's been done.

JOYCE: Environmental and citizens groups in Appalachia have been suing for years to stop mountaintop mining with mixed success. But Huffman says even if mountaintop mining were outlawed, that wouldn't keep other sources of mine waste out of valleys.

Mr. HUFFMAN: We have valley fills associated with every type of mining, including underground mining.

JOYCE: But according to scientists who've studied the region's streams, mountaintop mining is responsible for the most of the damage.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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