Map of the Southern Appalachians with water monitoring sites marked.

Linking mountaintop removal mining to water quality for imperiled species using satellite data

Map of the Southern Appalachians with water monitoring sites marked.

Linking mountaintop removal mining to water quality for imperiled species using satellite data

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Abstract

Environmental laws need sound data to protect species and ecosystems. In 1996, a proliferation of mountaintop removal coal mines in a region home to over 50 federally protected species was approved under the Endangered Species Act. Although this type of mining can degrade terrestrial and aquatic habitats, the available data and tools limited the ability to analyze spatially extensive, aggregate effects of such a program. We used two large, public datasets to quantify the relationship between mountaintop removal coal mining and water quality measures important to the survival of imperiled species at a landscape scale across Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. We combined an annual map of the extent of surface mines in this region from 1985 to 2015 generated from Landsat satellite imagery with public water quality data collected over the same time period from 4,260 monitoring stations within the same area. The water quality data show that chronic and acute thresholds for levels of aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, conductivity, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, pH, selenium, and zinc safe for aquatic life were exceeded thousands of times between 1985 and 2015 in streams that are important to the survival and recovery of species on the Endangered Species List. Linear mixed models showed that levels of manganese, sulfate, sulfur, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, and zinc increased by 6.73E+01 to 6.87E+05 ug/L and conductivity by 3.30E+06 uS/cm for one percent increase in the mined proportion of the area draining into a monitoring station. The proportion of a drainage area that was mined also increased the likelihood that chronic thresholds for copper, lead, and zinc required to sustain aquatic life were exceeded. Finally, the proportion of a watershed that was mined was positively related to the likelihood that a waterway would be designated as impaired under the Clean Water Act. Together these results demonstrate that the extent of mountaintop removal mining, which can be derived from public satellite data, is predictive of water quality measures important to imperiled species-effects that must be considered under environmental law. These findings and the public data used in our analyses are pertinent to ongoing re-evaluations of the effects of current mine permitting regulations to the recovery and survival of federally protected species.

Publication
PLoS ONE
water quality endangered species data mining
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Michael Evans
Senior Conservation Data Scientist

As a Senior Conservation Data Scientist in the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, Mike leads geoinformatics and data science projects to inform and improve conservation.