GUY COVE — A shallow, winding stream in Breathitt County could play a role in the future of Appalachian surface mining, showing a different way to reclaim watersheds than the approach coal companies have used for three decades.
That's because until just over a year ago, there was no stream at the site in Robinson Forest — just a flat of crushed, compacted rock.
It was a hollow fill, where a company had dumped millions of tons of rock blasted from a hill while uncovering coal. The fill buried headwater channels that had carried water down to a stream called Laurel Fork.
Researchers from the University of Kentucky built a new stream and wetlands atop the fill and planted vegetation and trees to figure out how to restore a headwater stream system after surface mining.
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The project at Guy Cove is still in the early stages, but the results have been promising so far, researchers said.
The stream is stable, vegetation such as bulrush and sedge has taken root and trees planted nearby are doing well. Frogs, salamanders and lots of tiny bugs such as mayflies — whose presence is an indicator of stream health — use the stream and wetlands.
And tests have shown the quality of the water in the engineered creek is better than in the water draining out of the fill elsewhere, said Christopher D. Barton, one of the UK professors involved in the research.
"From the water quality perspective ... the results are very encouraging," said Barton, a forest hydrologist.
Researchers recently presented information about the project to federal and state regulators. There was a great deal of interest, said Carmen Agouridis, a UK professor involved in the project with Barton and Richard C. Warner.
That is significant because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun taking a closer look at how proposed surface mines affect streams. The agency has held up dozens of permit applications in Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, for more review.
One area of concern for the EPA is restoring stream functions after mining, said Mary Anne Hitt, an official with the Sierra Club, which opposes mountaintop mining.
"This is a very timely study," Hitt said of the Guy Cove project.
Regulators could use lessons from the project in recommending the best ways to protect water quality and restore stream functions after mining.
The research also could point the way to go back and re-create streams across Appalachia where natural waterways have been buried by mining.
"It's showing a lot of possibilities," Agouridis said.
Hundreds of miles buried
The project touches on a key issue in the escalating protests and legal and regulatory battles over surface mining in the last decade — the impact on streams.
Coal companies can't put all the rock dislodged in surface mining back on the mined area because it swells. They deposit the extra rock and dirt — called spoil — into fills in valleys and hollows, compacting it with heavy equipment to keep it stable.
That often means burying parts of streams.
Environmentalists argue that regulators failed for decades to properly enforce rules to limit the impact of mining on streams.
Between 1992 and 2002, 1,200 miles of streams in Central Appalachia were wiped out by surface-mining activities, a 2003 federal study estimated.
Eastern Kentucky saw the most impact, with 730 stream miles directly affected by mining, according to the report — the most comprehensive federal study of mountaintop mining impacts in Appalachia.
But that estimate counted only a particular class of stream, Greg Pond, then a biologist with the Kentucky Division of Water, said in a 2004 research paper.
It's likely that mining has buried hundreds more miles of headwater areas in Kentucky, Pond said.
The coal industry says it would be impossible to mine coal without creating fills.
To many associated with the industry, the areas high on the side of a hill where water begins to collect are not streams at all, but merely drainage ditches that only flow with water when it rains or when snow melts.
Many people have an incorrect image of what is at issue in the debate over filling streams, said Chester Stevens, an engineer for a company that leases out land in Eastern Kentucky to be mined.
"I dare say that most people envision a pristine mountain stream that is several feet wide and several inches or feet deep being polluted with black material that is harmful to life," Stevens said in an e-mail. "They don't understand that in almost all cases, the stream is little more than a small channel that is dry a good portion of the year."
Congress did not intend to ban filling those headwater areas, and doing so creates level land that can be valuable, industry representatives say.
But scientists argue that even the top, "ephemeral" reaches of streams play vital roles in the ecosystem, providing habitat and food, maintaining biodiversity and regulating water flow.
In headwater areas, for instance, tiny bugs shred leaves to serve as food for other life downstream, such as mussels, salamanders and fish.
The system is akin to the way human lungs work, with small capillaries doing the vital job of exchanging gases between the respiratory and circulatory systems, Margaret A. Palmer, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, said in testimony to Congress last year.
"Small intermittent and ephemeral headwater channels ... do much of the processing of source materials for delivery to sustain downstream ecosystems and ensure productive rivers," Palmer wrote. "Remove too many of them and the system slowly dies."
When coal companies create valley or hollow fills, they build rock-lined drains around the sides of the fill to control water flow.
Scientists, however, say those drains do not replicate the pre-mining stream system.
"Creating ecologically healthy streams in places where the natural groundwater and surface water flow paths are so altered, and the landscape and vegetation so impacted, has not ever been accomplished..." Palmer told Congress.
How they did it
That's exactly what UK researchers are trying to show can be done with the project in Breathitt County. It's the first attempt they know of to re-establish a stream atop a fill.
The site was strip-mined in the early 1990s.
The uppermost part of the original headwater area remained on the ridge above the fill because the coal seam played out so the company didn't mine that spot, Barton said.
Starting where that section met the valley fill, Agouridis designed a new channel across the fill with natural features such as small drops, bends, pools and shallower riffles. Those features match a natural stream more closely than the drains typically built at fills.
A contractor used heavy equipment to dig the meandering channel, and then workers placed logs and various-sized rocks along and in it, mimicking what would be distributed along a natural stream over time.
The researchers didn't dig all the way through the valley fill to the level of the original stream. That would have been too expensive because the fill was 250 to 300 feet deep in spots, Barton said.
The contractor did excavate about 100 feet of rock in one area of the fill to create a slope for the new stream, however.
The researchers got money for the $1.5 million project from funds companies pay to compensate for damage to streams, Agouridis said.
It cost a lot of money to excavate the project, but the researchers believe it would be cost-effective for coal companies to design natural stream features into their reclamation plans if they did so on the front end.
The rebuilt stream is about 2,500 feet long and has 1,800 feet of ephemeral channels feeding into it from adjacent slopes.
An important part of the project included planting 30,000 trees in uncompacted dirt along the sides of the stream to rebuild the watershed, because natural streams in Eastern Kentucky typically are lined with trees that help manage and filter water, and provide habitat.
Barton said it would be impossible to duplicate the stream system that existed at Guy Cove before mining.
But the project shows it is possible to get much closer than with the drains that have been a staple in reclamation, he said.
"It does a better job of mimicking that natural system," Barton said. "It's better than just completely losing that water resource."
Measuring water quality
It also shows real potential to improve water quality below fills.
When water drains through a mined area or hollow fill, it can pick up things such as iron, manganese and sulfates from the crushed rocks.
Researchers also have found selenium in streams below valley fills, which can cause deformities in fish and other problems at high enough levels.
Selenium appears to be a greater problem in West Virginia than Kentucky. But studies have found impaired water quality in both states in streams affected by drainage from mountaintop mines and valley fills.
Pond found in a 2004 study that 95 percent of the streams sampled below mined areas in Eastern Kentucky were biologically impaired.
And in a 2008 study in West Virginia for the EPA, researchers found that 93 percent of streams linked to mining were impaired, while none of the unmined streams were.
"Surface coal mining with valley fills has impaired the aquatic life in numerous streams in the Central Appalachian Mountains," the study said.
One measure of water quality is conductivity, an indicator of the mineral level in water. High conductivity can kill off tiny bugs such as mayflies at the bottom of the aquatic food chain.
Tests show that conductivity in the re-created stream at Guy Cove is much closer to that of a natural Appalachian stream than the water draining out the bottom of the fill, Barton said.
The restored watershed keeps water from draining through the fill where it would dissolve elements out of crushed rock.
Jobs vs. mayflies
Conductivity is getting increasing attention from regulators.
Gene Kitts, a senior vice-president of International Coal Group, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleges that impacts to mayflies that result from raised conductivity violate water-quality standards.
The industry disagrees, arguing that some impacts are allowed to accommodate economic activity, Kitts said.
Counting mayflies is a common way to measure the health of a stream because they are sensitive to pollution.
Telling the coal industry it can't have an impact on water quality, as measured by the presence or absence of mayflies, would in effect bar mining, Kitts said.
"Saving mayflies at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs and all the benefits of those jobs is simply not a good choice for Kentucky or Appalachia," Kitts said.
But Hitt, with the Sierra Club, said describing the issue as jobs vs. mayflies plays on fears and doesn't tell the full story.
If mayflies have been wiped out, "you pretty much have a dead stream," which raises concerns for other aquatic life and for people, Hitt said.
There is no federal standard on conductivity now. If regulators adopt one, the research at Guy Cove shows how companies could meet it, Barton said.
There are other standards in place designed to protect water quality, however. Coal companies must analyze the area to be mined to guard against acid drainage and must build ponds to catch water flowing off the mine, and treat it if necessary.
"The vast majority of coal producers work hard to minimize adverse effects to the environment and conduct good reclamation," Tracy Goff, vice-president of environmental services at Summit Engineering in Pikeville, wrote in a 2008 coal-industry publication.
But Pond said in his 2004 study that "impacts to streams due to surface mining are still common and widespread" despite state and federal rules.
Mining isn't the only thing that buries streams or hurts water quality in Appalachia. Logging, agricultural runoff, road construction and poor sewage treatment all have an impact.
However, surface mining is responsible for the biggest changes to land use and land cover in Central Appalachia, Palmer said.
There is still much monitoring and analysis to be done at the Guy Cove project. One question is how to incorporate the concepts on watershed restoration into active mining.
If a coal company proposes to do that, state officials would consider recommending federal approval of the request as an experimental practice, said Paul Rothman, a supervisor in the state Department of Natural Resources who helped push along the original proposal for the Guy Cove research.
The concepts in the research are somewhat out of the box, but impressive, Rothman said.
Hitt questioned whether coal companies would really use the techniques demonstrated in the project if they're not mandatory.
She said there also is a concern that demonstrating streams can be restored will be used as a justification for continued mountaintop mining, which many environmentalists would like to see banned.
Still she said, "Any measures that can mitigate all the damage that's been done would be very welcome."