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Guest Thinkers

Mountaintop Coal Mining Could Decimate Fish Populations

Three days ago, a Wake Forest professor of biology went to the US Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, to give them all the disturbing news: we’re poisoning our fresh water fish stocks with destructive mountaintop removal coal mining.  In a study of 78 stream samples in areas near mountaintop removal mining sites, Professor Dennis Lemly and his team found that 73 contained toxic levels of selenium.

Toxic levels of selenium, a chemical element, cause gruesome birth defects – twisted spines and deformed heads – in fish populations. “Once in the aquatic environment, waterborne selenium can enter the food chain and reach levels that are toxic to fish and wildlife,” Lemly told officials.

And not just to fish and wildlife, but to we humans, as well. In looking at West Virginia’s Mud River Reservoir, Lemly found that more than half of young fish born near the mountaintop removal site had defects and were passing their through-the-roof selenium levels on to the humans who catch and consume them. A little bit of selenium is good for us, even necessary, but the levels being found in these fish are high enough to cause reproductive failure and birth defects even in humans.

So add selenium to the list of reasons to hate on mountaintop removal coal mining – which is blowing the tops of twice as many mountains today than it did 8 years ago, and which has covered up and filled in 1,000 miles of fresh water streams in Appalachia during just the past two decades.

And that’s not even getting into the havoc that coal’s other lovely byproduct – mercury – is wreaking on marine, wildlife, and human health. Did someone say ‘clean coal’?


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