West Virginia Fish Populations Dwindle in Streams Impacted by Mountaintop Mining

Bloomberg BNA — Appalachian streams polluted with mountaintop mining runoff have less than half as many fish species as non-impacted streams, according to new U.S. Geological Survey research.

The research, announced July 1, examined fish diversity and abundance in the Guyandotte River basin of West Virginia, documenting elevated selenium and electrical conductivity levels from mining runoff in streams where fish communities were degraded.

Waterways affected by mountaintop mining have about one-third as many fish as non-impacted streams, said the study, due to persistent water degradation effects associated with mining.

Nathaniel Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and the study's lead author, said there is no evidence that fish communities recover over time from water quality degradation caused by mountaintop mining runoff.

“Our results indicate that headwater mining may be limiting fish communities by restricting the prey base available for fish,” Hitt said in the announcement. “For instance, fish species with specialized diets of stream insects were more likely to be lost from the streams over time than fish species with more diverse diets.”

Data Tracked Over Time

The researchers used data from several time periods to track changes in fish diversity and abundance the in West Virginia river basin, including streams with and without headwater mining operations.

Original fish data was collected by a Pennsylvania State University team between 1999-2001, and the USGS collected additional data from 2010-2011.

Results from the USGS study—published online June 30 in the journal Freshwater Science—indicate that water quality is generally more important than physical habitat with regard to fish community changes.

Few investigators have evaluated the effects of mountaintop mining on stream fishes, Hitt said, noting the USGS investigation is some of “the first peer-reviewed research to understand how fish communities respond to mountaintop mining in these biologically diverse headwater streams.”

Prior research by the USGS has demonstrated that headwater mountaintop mining affects downstream flows, water chemistry, stream insect communities and public health in nearby communities.

Last month a federal judge, ruling in a West Virginia mining permit case, said “extensive scientific evidence” indicates conductivity pollution from mountaintop mining is damaging state streams, harming the abundance and diversity of aquatic life.

Selenium is an essential micronutrient that is toxic at high doses; it is found in Appalachian geological formations and can become concentrated in water running off of mountaintop mining operations.

Conductivity is a measure of the capacity of water to carry an electrical current and is used by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess a stream's ability to support aquatic life.

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