Does Coal Mining Increase Flood Risk in Eastern Kentucky?

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate office collaboration.

Appalachian states like Kentucky have a long and turbulent history of coal and mountaintop mining – a mining process that uses explosives to clear forests and scrape the ground to access coal seams underlying. For years, researchers have warned that land deformed by mountaintop removal could be more prone to flooding, due to the resulting lack of vegetation to prevent runoff. Without trees to buffer the rain and the ground to absorb it, the water accumulates and heads for the path of least resistance – the descent.

In 2019, two Duke University scientists conducted an analysis of flood-prone communities in the region for Inside Climate News, identifying “areas most damaged by mining.” These included many of the same eastern Kentucky communities that saw river levels rise 25 feet in just 24 hours last week.

“The findings suggest that long after coal mining has ceased, its legacy…may continue to impose a price on residents who live downriver from the hundreds of mountains that have been leveled in Appalachia to produce coal. electricity,” James Bruggers of Inside Climate News wrote at the time.

Now, in 2022, these discoveries seem tragically prescient. From July 25-30, eastern Kentucky experienced a mix of flash flooding and thunderstorms bringing more than 4 inches of rain per hour, swelling local rivers to historic levels. So far, the floods have claimed at least 37 lives.

Nicolas Zégre, director of West Virginia University’s Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, studies the hydrological impacts of mountain top removal and how water moves through the environment. While it’s too early to tell how much the region’s mining history contributed to this year’s flooding, he said he considers Appalachia to be “climate zero,” a region built on industry. coal, which has contributed to rising global temperatures and increased carbon in the atmosphere.

“Whether it’s the 2016 flood in West Virginia or the recent floods in Kentucky, the precipitation is more intense because of the warmer temperatures,” Zegre said, “and then that precipitation was falling on landscapes whose forests had been removed”.

For some regional scientists, surface mining is not the only factor behind the increase in flooding. A 2017 Environmental Science and Technology study looked at how mountaintop mining could actually help store precipitation. When a mountain top is shaken by explosions, the remaining material is piled up in areas called valley fills. According to the authors, “harvested watersheds with valley fills appear to store precipitation for considerable periods of time.”

The study noted that valley fill material often contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals resulting from the mining process. These compounds are then washed into streams during heavy rains, a process known as alkaline mine drainage. According to a 2012 study, also from Environmental Science and Technology, alkaline mine drainage polluted up to 22% of all waterways in central Appalachia.

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