In the U.S., coal is the most common fuel used for generating electricity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Appalachian coal region, including the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, supply more than a third of the country's coal. Unfortunately, our reliance on coal has some significant consequences for fish and wildlife resources.
All surface coal mining, including mountaintop removal mining, requires large-scale land clearing, which destroys and fragments existing wildlife habitat. Certain species, like the cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea) are particularly vulnerable to this forest fragmentation. Read the Cerulean Warbler: The Coal Connection.
Surface coal mining also involves the blasting and removal of large volumes of soil and rock to uncover the coal seams. This overburden, or mine "spoil," is often dumped in adjacent valleys, burying streams and leading to water quality problems downstream. Typical effects are increases in acidity and dissolved salts and metals, which can adversely effect fish, salamanders, aquatic insects and other macro-invertebrates, including the rare or federally listed freshwater mussels that inhabit the Appalachian region.
The air emissions from coal power plants also contribute to climate change, acid rain and mercury deposition, each harming fish and wildlife and their habitats.
Because climate change has the potential to cause abrupt ecosystem changes and increased species extinctions, CO2 and other greenhouse gases released during coal combustion are probably of greatest concern. Other emissions, such as oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, contribute to the acidification of freshwater lakes and streams, which can devastate sensitive populations of fish and other aquatic species. Coal also contains trace amounts of the toxic metal mercury, which when released into the environment tends to accumulate in aquatic systems where it causes a variety of detrimental effects to fish, birds, and mammals.
The Service coordinates closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and other organizations to find methods to avoid or reduce the effects of coal mining and combustion to our natural resources.
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