Friday, September 03, 2021

Study: W.Va. mining cuts aquatic species biodiversity by 40%, with some loss even in streams meeting EPA rules

Map from study, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it to enlarge.
Appalachian streams are some of the most biologically diverse in the world, home to many species that can't be found anywhere else on Earth (like the hellbender salamander, for example). But surface mining threatens that diversity as downstream pollution hurts or destroys many species' habitats, according to a newly published study in the journal Ecological Applications.

A Duke University team led by Marie Simonin of France's National Research Institute for Agriculture examined 93 streams in southern West Virginia and found a clear link between coal mining and species loss: streams in heavily mined watersheds have 40 percent fewer species than streams with cleaner water. That includes fish, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, fungi, bacteria, and more. They were able to tell what species had vanished by collecting and comparing DNA from scraps left in the streams such as scales, skin and excrement.

Pollution threatens the hellbender.
 (Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
The study is significant not just for its findings but for its breadth; other studies have noted the link between surface mining and species loss, but this study looked at all species in the same streams at the same time.

The study highlighted another concern: Pollutants hurt aquatic species at much lower concentrations than previously known, since the team found significant diversity loss in streams whose pollution was still well within Environmental Protection Agency disturbance standards. Duke biology professor Emily Bernhardt, the senior author of the paper, summed it up in a recent interview about the study: "By the time you get to the EPA’s reference point, you've already lost most of the species you're going to lose."

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