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Impact of coal mining on stream biodiversity in the US and its regulatory implications


Coal mining is a major cause of land-use change in the US, and according to the Energy Information Administration it is expected to remain a key part of the national electricity portfolio until at least 2040. It is therefore crucial to understand the environmental impact of coal mining. Although a scientific consensus has emerged that coal mining negatively affects water quality, a quantitative synthesis of biodiversity impacts is currently lacking. Here, we show that mining under current federal statutes—the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act—has negative implications for freshwater biota. Streams affected by coal mining averaged one-third (32%) lower taxonomic richness and one-half (53%) lower total abundance than unmined streams, with these impacts occurring across all taxa investigated thus far (invertebrates, fish, and salamanders). Even after post-mining reclamation, biodiversity impacts persisted. Our investigation demonstrates that current US regulations are insufficient to fully protect stream biodiversity.

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Fig. 1: Coal mining and impacted stream biodiversity.
Fig. 2: Effects of coal mining on stream biodiversity.
Fig. 3: Watersheds of highest (WCC1) and high (WCC2) conservation concern.

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Our study would not be possible without the original studies that went into our meta-analysis. We thank all authors and researchers who led and participated in the original research. We are particularly grateful to G. Pond, J. Simmons, M. Vis, B. Verb, N. Smucker, T. Schmidt, D. Soucek, M. Yeager-Armstead and K. Fritz for generously sharing information and/or data. We thank M. Palmer, E. Bernhardt and D. Rifkin for insightful discussions and comments on a previous version of this paper. Finally, we thank C. Osenberg for thoughtful comments and suggestions that improved our paper substantially.

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X.G. conceived the study, performed the analyses, and led the writing of the paper. J.D.O. and D.S. provided input into data analyses and contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Xingli Giam.

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Giam, X., Olden, J.D. & Simberloff, D. Impact of coal mining on stream biodiversity in the US and its regulatory implications. Nat Sustain 1, 176–183 (2018).

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