Is coal mining increasing flood risk in East Kentucky?

This story originally was watching grist and is part of climate desk Cooperation.

Appalachian states like Kentucky have long, turbulent histories of coal and mountaintop mining — an extractive mining process that uses explosives to clear forests and scrape earth to access underlying coal seams. For years researchers have warned that land distorted by the removal of mountain peaks could be more vulnerable to flooding due to the resulting lack of vegetation to prevent runoff. Without trees to buffer the rain and soil to soak it up, the water pools and makes its way down its least resilient path – downhill.

In 2019, two Duke University scientists for Inside Climate News conducted an analysis of flood-prone communities in the region and identified the most “mining-damaged areas.” This included many of the same eastern Kentucky communities where river levels had risen 25 feet in just 24 hours over the past week.

“The results suggest that long after coal mining has ended, his legacy … may continue to exact a price from residents living downstream of hundreds of mountains in Appalachia that have been leveled to produce electricity,” wrote James Bruggers of Inside Climate News under the times.

Now, in 2022, those results feel tragically prescient. July 25-30, eastern Kentucky experienced a mix of flash floods and thunderstorms bringing up to 4 inches of rain per hour and swelling local rivers to historic levels. To date, the flooding has claimed at least 37 lives.

Nicolas Zégre, director of West Virginia University’s Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, studies the hydrological effects of mountain peak erosion and how water moves through the environment. Though it’s too early to know how much the region’s mining history contributed to this year’s floods, he said he views Appalachia as “climate zero,” a region built on the coal industry that contributes to rising global temperatures and an increased carbon atmosphere.

“Whether it was the 2016 West Virginia floods or the recent Kentucky floods, there are more intense rains due to warmer temperatures,” Zégre said, “and then those rains fell on landscapes that had their forests removed.”

For some regional scientists, open pit mining is not the only factor behind increased flooding. A 2017 environmental science and technology study explored how mountaintop mining might actually help store precipitation. When a mountain peak is rocked by explosions, leftover material is packed into areas known as valley fills. According to the authors, “degraded valley-fill watersheds appear to store precipitation for significant periods of time.”

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

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