In July 2001, localized heavy rains produced severe flooding in the southern West Virginia coalfields. See July 29, 2006 Register Herald article. Groups like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition were quick to blame mining. Mass litigation against the logging and coal industries ensued and continued for another eight years.
In June 2016, localized heavy rains produced devastating flooding yet again in portions of West Virginia. This time, many of the places flooded are relatively unaffected by surface mining or widespread logging, and local news coverage struggled to blame the localized heavy rain on increased storm intensity and frequency undoubtedly induced by climate change, while more skeptical and measured scientists at the West Virginia Geologic and Economic Survey noted the storms were not necessarily “abnormal” in the history of West Virginia.
But one thing we have not seen in the West Virginia press is any mention of recent research by WVU Professor Nicolas Zegre, a hydrologist who is currently serving as an expert witness for the Sierra Club in several lawsuits against mineral owners. In 2014, Dr. Zegre and others published a paper examining the long-term trend in flow response to increased surface mining and valley fill construction in the Big Coal River watershed of West Virginia. See Segre, N., “Multiscale Analysis of Hydrology in a Mountaintop Mine-Impacted Watershed.” There, the authors tracked the progression of surface mining in the watershed starting in 1973, which they described as “four years prior to [mountaintop mining], to assess changes over the lifetime of this practice.” Then, using precipitation data and USGS gauged streamflow data over similar periods, they sought to separate baseflow (the “normal” flows not directly related to a storm event) from stream-driven flows.
Despite an increase in mining and valley fills and a decrease in forest cover over much of the time period, the authors found “significant decreases in maximum streamflow and variability, and … significant increases in baseflow.” That is, while the “normal” flows between storm events were higher, the highest flows during storm events decreased with increases in mining and valley fill construction. The authors conceded surprise in detecting significant decreases in maximum in-stream flows given claims by other authors that studies had detected increased flows below individual surface mines.
This article was authored by Robert G. McLusky, Jackson Kelly, PLLC.