Federal Reports Examining Mountaintop Mining in Central Appalachia Issued

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued two reports examining mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia over the last few months. GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that provides information to Congress about how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. GAO aims improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government.

Report 1: "Characteristics of Active and Reclaimed Surface Mine Sites in Kentucky and West Virginia"
(December 9th, 2009)

The report stated that "there is limited public access to information on the size, location, and life span of (mountaintop surface mining) operations, or on how the land can be expected to look afterward.”

The report also found:

-Post-mine land use in Kentucky was most commonly for fish & wildlife purposes, while in West Virginia it was for forestland.

-Kentucky and West Virginia have collectively approved more than 2,000 fills totaling at least 4.9 billion cubic yards of excess spoil in them.

Report 2: "Financial Assurances for, and Long-Term Oversight of, Mines with Valley Fills in Four Appalachian States"
(February 16th, 2010)

The purpose of the study was to determine whether or not regulatory agencies that are supposed to ensure that Central Appalachian coal mining companies fulfill financial expectations outlined in the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act (SMCRA) are effective. Under SMCRA, mine operators must provide financial assurances to ensure that previous mine sites can be reclaimed and the impact on streams mitigated.

The report found:

– Reforestation efforts at some reclaimed surface coal mine sites needed improvement;
– Surface coal mine sites have contaminated streams and harmed aquatic organisms;
– Valley fills may affect water flow; and
– Mine operators have not always returned mine sites to their approximate original contour when required to do so under SMCRA.

Neither report offers recommendations for action, so it is unclear how this information will be used by Congress. On February 23rd, however, the Senate received a briefing by scientists who authored "Mountaintop Mining Consequences" about the health and environmental impacts of these mining practices. (Read more about the Science article on the site of it's lead author, Dr. Margaret Palmer.)