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Study denounces mining technique

Removing entire mountaintops found to have ‘severe’ effects

Tom Hamburger Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON – A scientific study released Thursday says mountaintop-removal coal mining – the practice of blowing up mountain peaks to get access to coal seams below – should be halted immediately because of evidence of environmental and public health effects.

The unusually strongly worded report in the journal Science presents a new and difficult challenge to the Obama administration, which has upset environmentalists by continuing to approve such permits but has vowed to rely on scientific expertise as it rules on whether to grant permits for the controversial practice.

The study comes days after the Environmental Protection Agency released a permit for a large mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia, which raised objections from environmental activists. Coal companies say the practice is more efficient and safer than traditional deep-shaft mining and that steps are taken to mitigate damage. Environmentalists claim it degrades the landscape, destroys habitat and pollutes streams with exploded debris.

The issue is politically touchy for President Barack Obama, who won his election with the support of environmentalists but also needs support from voters in coal states such as Ohio, where he won by a narrow margin.

The scientists who wrote the article released Thursday urged the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject all new mountaintop mining permits.

“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” said lead author Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland.

In the paper, written by a group of hydrologists, ecologists and engineers, the authors outline environmental degradation taking place at mining sites and downstream, “including harmful consequences for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.”

The authors also describe human health effects associated with surface mining for coal in the Appalachian region, where most of this mining takes place. The problems include elevated death rates, lung cancer and kidney disease in coal-producing communities.

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