Where common sense and environmental ethics have failed to protect Appalachian mountains from destruction, the humble mayfly may succeed.
For decades, coal companies have been allowed to blast the tops off mountains, extract the coal that lies beneath, and dump the rubble into the river valleys below. Unlike strip mines on the Great Plains, where miners are required to restore the land’s original contours after they take the coal, and unlike Appalachia’s own tunnel-and-shaft mines, which leave the surface undisturbed, mountaintop mines destroy the region’s landscape and significantly degrade its water.
Enter the mayfly. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has begun withholding mining permits unless applicants can prove that their projects will not have lethal consequences for the aquatic insect commonly mimicked in fishing lures.
In September, two EPA scientists reported that mayfly populations were reduced or nonexistent in creeks downstream from mountaintop mining sites. Since then, 79 permits for mining in Appalachia have been put on hold.
Mountaintop mining produces about $3 billion worth of coal each year. The company that will be affected the most by the new regulations is Massey Energy Co., which operates exclusively in Appalachia. International Coal and Patriot Coal also will be affected.
These mining companies say the price of protecting the mayfly is too high. If mountaintop mining is prohibited, they will be forced to resort to more labor-intensive tunnel-and-shaft mines. Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, said that the change would add $3 to $10 to the cost of extracting a ton of coal.
“If the most sensitive mayfly has to be protected in its habitat at the expense of coal mining in the entire region, we don’t think that’s a wise tradeoff,” said Gene Kitts, senior vice president of mining services for a West-Virginia-based division of International Coal. Industry leaders point out that the mayfly is not endangered and claim that the new restrictions amount to trading jobs for bugs.
But the EPA regulations aren’t just about protecting the mayfly. Just as the death of a canary once served to alert miners that a tunnel was too dangerous, the widespread death of mayflies serves as an indicator that the practice of mountaintop mining is hazardous to the surrounding ecosystem. Not that it should take much more than a few minutes’ thought to realize that dumping mining waste into river bottoms is going to hurt the water, or that blasting away forested hilltops is going to permanently scar the land. (To get around contour-restoration requirements, mountaintop miners have claimed they are providing a public service by creating flat ground for development in a mountainous region.)
Gregory Pond, the EPA aquatic biologist who coauthored the study said, "While habitat degradation from mountaintop mining is what one sees on the surface, we found that chemical effects are quite pronounced and limit much of the expected biodiversity from what were once naturally rich, diverse Appalachian stream systems.”
Though mayflies are the first casualties, their disappearance presages other losses. Mayflies are an important part of the food chain, providing a vital food source for fish such as trout, bass and catfish.
The EPA is trying to protect, not just the mayfly, but entire ecosystems. It is hard to believe it took this long. But thanks to the mayfly, mountaintop mining might be relegated to the ash heap of environmental history.