The Skywriter

How mountaintop removal destroys ecosystems


How mountaintop removal destroys ecosystems


Mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian region is one of the most ecologically destructive activities being undertaken to meet our domestic energy needs. To understand the devastation, you need to first get a picture of the process of the destruction.

Before mountaintop mining begins, forests are logged off the mountain. Then the overburden (organic material, topsoil, and bedrock to the depth of the coal seam) is removed. Mining companies had difficulty in disposing of this "mining waste," so in 2002 the Bush administration decided to allow them to dump the overburden in adjacent forest streams.

The result:

Just one mountaintop removal mine can lay bare up to 10 square miles and pour hundreds of millions of tons of waste material into as many as a dozen "valley fills" -- some of which are 1,000 feet wide and a mile long.

And if that’s not bad enough, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act allows mining companies to restore MTR sites in grass -- which means that it will take thousands of years for forest to develop again, and the Appalachian temperate forest ecosystem is gone forever. Filled streams are no longer streams. They are ditches or culverts, their ecological function gone forever.

Mountain streams contrasting pics

Contrasting photos of a traditional mountain stream (left) and a mountain stream diverted into a culvert and buried by mining debris (right) in a process known as a “valley fill.” (Appalachian Voices)

You get the picture.

But what are we losing? Forests and streams are everywhere, and if we have to destroy some to meet our energy needs, we still have others don’t we?

The answer to that is a resounding ‘NO’. The Appalachian temperate forest ecosystem where these mountains are being removed is among the oldest in the world, and for that reason contains a diversity of plants and animals greater than any other temperate forest system in the world, asde from a similar system in central China.

Over millions of years, some plants and animals have evolved into unique species found nowhere else in the world (‘endemic species’). Other species still occur after millions of years of geologic change have eliminated them from most other places on Earth, in protected pockets that are refugia for these species (‘relict species’).

The biodiversity of this ecoregion is also exceptional due to the broad range of microhabitats, presence of numerous relict species and communities, and geologic stability over long periods of evolutionary history to allow for diversification within taxa. Indeed, a number of plants, invertebrates, salamanders, crayfish, freshwater mussels and fish are restricted to single watersheds or peaks due to millions of years of isolation and favorable conditions. More than 158 tree species can be found within the region, ranking it among the highest ecoregions in North America for total floral diversity. In conjunction with the Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forests, it contains the highest total amount of endemic flora and fauna species in North America.

Many of these endemic species are salamanders in the Family Plethodontidae (lungless salamanders). The evolutionary origin of lungless salamanders is the Appalachian Mountains. These little moist-skinned amphibians breathe through their skins, as their name implies. Most species are terrestrial, although some are aquatic.

This is the largest salamander family, with about 215 species world-wide. There are 61 known species of lungless salamanders in the Appalachians, and new species are being described every year. Some are restricted to a single watershed or mountain. For example, the Shenandoah Salamander has a distribution in a few square miles of several mountain talus slopes in the Shenandoah National Park.


Dusky salamander from Shenandoah National Park by Steve Corn. This is a common, widespread plethodonid.Your browser may not support display of this image.

Lungless salamanders are small organisms, but they’re abundant. They can make up the greatest biomass of any animal in some places, and are top predator in some systems as well. That makes them centrally important in ecological function and in maintaining intact food webs.

The Smithsonian Zoological Park hosted a workshop in May 2008 to address Appalachian salamander conservation (.pdf):

Salamanders, along with many other amphibian species have been declining in recent years. The IUCN lists 47% of the world’s salamanders threatened or endangered, yet few people know that the Appalachian region of the United States is home to 14% of the world’s 535 salamander species, making it an extraordinary salamander biodiversity hotspot, and a priority region for salamander conservation.

…Of the 76 salamanders occurring in the Appalachian region, nearly half (35 species) are endemic.

And of those 35 species found nowhere else in the world, 34 are lungless salamander species.

More from the Appalachian Salamander Conservation Workshop:

Of all the mining practices in the Appalachians, mountain top removal is the most visible and destructive for salamanders. …Salamanders are the vertebrates hardest hit by these activities and their populations can take as long as 70 years to recover to pre-disturbance levels.

…Out of the 171 species of salamanders occur in the U.S., and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 13 of these as threatened or endangered. The IUCN lists 41 American species as endangered, threatened or vulnerable.

How many species of as-yet undescribed lungless salamanders are now extinct, never to be known by man?

Unique forest stands of irreplaceable diversity are being destroyed every time a mine is established. But watersheds and their unique and diverse assemblages of species are destroyed as well, as you might guess from the paired photos at the beginning of this post, with devastating ecological results.

Last summer, West Virginia’s Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman testified in the U.S. Senate that, while all mayflies and most stoneflies were eliminated from streams inundated with fill, these impacts were negligible. But Doug Wood, a biologist in the WV water division’s watershed assessment section, wrote a memo to his superiors within a week of Huffman’s testimony, describing the true consequences of eliminating almost all of two important insect groups from a stream. Biodiversity of insects is used as an indicator of ‘health’ and function of stream ecosystems, because they are at the base of food webs in intact systems that then support a diversity of higher life forms.

So Woods was quite critical of the off-hand dismissal of impacts by Huffman. He wrote:

We now have clear evidence that in some streams that drain mountaintop coal quarry valley fills, the entire order Ephemeroptera (mayflies) has been extirpated, not just certain genera of this order. We also have evidence that some streams no longer support the order Plecoptera (stoneflies).

…The loss of an order of insects from a stream is taxonomically equivalent to the loss of all primates (including humans) from a given area. The loss of two insect orders is taxonomically equivalent to killing all primates and all rodents through toxic chemicals.

Such adverse ecological impacts are most certainly significant, and they prevent affected streams from meeting their designated aquatic life uses [emphasis in original].

Wood used salamanders as an example of the diversity subsequently lost as insect diversity is wiped out:

Salamanders, the top predators of headwater stream ecosystems, have also been significantly negatively impacted by mountaintop coal quarries. Our searches consistently show no salamanders or only one species out of four or five expected stream salamander species immediately below valley fills until stream stretches below un-quarried tributaries are reached.

The one salamander species complex most frequently encountered nearest to valley fills is the two-lined salamander, well-known for its ability to survive in disturbed aquatic environments.

Over 500 mountains have been removed for coal mining to date (.pdf); more than 500 distinct and ancient plant and animal assemblages destroyed on the mountains, more than 500-times-12 stream headwaters destroyed where the overburden is dumped.

Forests gone, streams destroyed, and all the unique and diverse plant and animal species gone with them. Natural places that have evolved undisturbed for millions of years, gone forever. We are losing so much more than the already unsupportable cost of MTR to people’s health, homes, and communities. We are losing irreplaceable places unlike any other on the globe. This is a tragedy that must be stopped.

Janelle Corn, Ph.D., is an ecologist and wildlife biologist living in western Montana. She has lived and worked in the western U.S. for 30 years, and is currently an activist for addressing climate change before it's too late. Her new blog is Natural History Now. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.
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