Selenium pollution affects fish first, so they are the best barometer for understanding the threat to ecosystems downstream from mountaintop removal mining operations, explained Dennis Lemly, research professor of biology. He advocates a ban on the process and supports tougher regulations on the disposal of coal waste.
“We’re killing fish right now with selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mining,” Lemly said. “Toxic levels of selenium were found in 73 of 78 stream samples. The threat is expanding as use of this destructive process expands. Once these ecosystems are polluted, damage to the environment is permanent.”
Lemly was part of a team of 12 ecologists and engineers who provided the first comprehensive analysis of damage done by mountaintop removal mining.
Mountaintop removal mining, which has doubled in the past 8 years, blasts the top off a mountain and pushes the excess rock to the neighboring valley to get to the coal beneath. Over the past two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams. Most common in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, this type of mining causes toxic levels of selenium to leach into rivers and streams.
High levels of selenium threaten fish survival and reproduction. If they do reproduce, contaminated fish have offspring with serious birth defects. Lemly has found that newly hatched fish have crooked spines and deformed heads due to high levels of selenium. They cannot survive and reproduction will fail, he says. He warns the fish population could be wiped out.
Lemly studied West Virginia’s Mud River Reservoir, which was polluted with selenium released from a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. Fifty to 60 percent of young fish were deformed because of high concentrations of selenium. Selenium levels in fish caught in some of West Virginia’s rivers are more than twice what is considered safe for human consumption.
Humans need to absorb certain amounts of selenium daily, but extremely high concentrations of selenium can cause reproductive failure and birth defects.
“I specialize in fish, but that is only one part of the overall picture,” Lemly said. “Public health is also an issue with mountaintop removal mining.”