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Mountaintop removal for coal hurts water quality and harms fish, study says

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 9:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains, fish are vanishing. The number of species has fallen, the populations of those that remain are down, and some fish look a little skinny.

A new government study traces the decline in abundance to mountaintop removal, the controversial coal-mining practice of clear-cutting trees from mountains before blowing off their tops with explosives.

When the resulting rain of shattered rock hits the rivers and streams that snake along the base of the mountains, minerals released from within the stone are changing the water's chemistry, the study said, lowering its quality and causing tiny prey such as insects, worms and invertebrates to die.

“We're seeing significant reductions in the number of fish species and total abundance of fish downstream from mining operations,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a research fish biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Kearneysville, W.Va., and one of the study's two authors.

Hitt and his co-author, Doug Chambers, a biologist and water-quality specialist in the Charleston, W.Va., office of the USGS, took a 1999 study of the Guyandotte River basin's fish populations by Penn State researchers to compare them over time.

In one of the sample areas, the Mud River watershed, which contains the largest tributary of the Guyandotte River, at least 100 point source pollution discharge permits associated with surface mining have been issued, the study said.

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