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Study finds surface mining leads to increased wetlands in Appalachia

Field with trees in the background. A field with yellow-brown grass has pools of water in the center.
Wally Smith
University of Virginia College at Wise
An area where a wetland has formed on land that was formerly surface mined, on property currently owned by the University of Virginia College at Wise.

There are over a million acres in central Appalachia where the land has been altered by strip mining. A new study explores the impact this is having on wetlands in southwest Virginia.

According to the study, land in Wise County that was surface mined, or is currently being mined, has nearly four times as many wetlands as non-mine sites.

That’s partly because surfacing mining, or strip mining as it’s sometimes called, artificially flattens the land. And where there were once high elevation streams, wetlands form. Also, mining companies often build man-made pools to filter water, and retention ponds to store water and leftover waste.

Federal and state laws require mining companies to do reclamation on land that has been surfaced mined, but this doesn't cover areas that were mined before 1977, and reclamation does not return a mountain to its original contours. Some changes are permanent.

The study was coauthored by Wally Smith, an associate professor of Biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Smith said some of these wetlands may actually be helpful for animals, because they’re good habitat for some birds and amphibians, if the water is clear of contaminants.

The lead author of the study was David Goodman, a high school biology teacher in Wise County. As part of his master’s degree at Colorado State University, he compiled data from all known wetlands within the Guest River Watershed in Wise County.

“So instead of looking at it from a county perspective, we looked at it from a watershed perspective,” Goodman said.

Scientists have done hundreds of studies on individual wetlands, but this is the first to look at a regional watershed and look at how strip mining has impacted the number of wetlands.

In addition to the higher quantity of wetlands on mined sites, compared with natural wetlands, they found that mined wetlands also tend to be located in higher elevations, and are larger.

“So there’s a substantial difference in the size of the wetlands, depending on if we were talking about mined or unmined lands,” Goodman said.

A lush mountain wetland with bright green ferns and grass grows in what looks like a swampy bog. Evergreen trees dot the edge of the wetland. Another tree to the left shades part of the wetland. One could almost imagine it as a glimpse from millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Wally Smith
University of Virginia College at Wise
A natural wetland in Wise County.

While the study doesn’t explore the consequences of these differences, it sets the groundwork for further research to explore the long-term impacts of changes to the environment, as a result of surface mining.

Natural wetlands can help buffer against flooding during heavy rain events, and in some cases, man-made wetlands could also help slow down flooding, Smith said.

On the flip side, man-made wetlands could also pose a threat to flooding.

“So if it’s a degraded retention pond, or the land maybe is not stable around this wetland, during an extreme flood event that wetland could possibly fail,” Smith said. “And all that water that’s stored could make its way even quicker downstream.”

Smith said more research is needed to learn the full impact of these wetlands, particularly when it comes to flooding and wildlife. But he points to recent flooding events in eastern Kentucky and Buchanan County, both in areas close to surface mining.

“I don’t think we solved anything necessarily with the flooding, but I’m hoping that this could be a catalyst to get some other folks thinking about it,” Smith said.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.