“Coal mining is incredibly important to West Virginia’s economy, and the health of the state’s river systems is equally important to the well-being of its citizens. The intensity of the debate over the Spruce No. 1 mine permit has shown us just how important these things are,” Petty said. In his view, this combination of economic and environmental priorities makes it “absolutely necessary that we succeed in facilitating the mine permitting process while ensuring benefits to watershed health through strategic restoration activities.”

Petty and colleagues have received more than $600,000 to help refine that process for the benefit of both the economy and the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided $300,000 to support Cumulative Impact Assessments in the region where mountaintop mining is practiced.

“We characterize land cover disturbance factors such as mining and residential development, and then we relate those disturbances to stream water quality and biological community composition,” Petty said. “From the models we develop in this process, we are able to then project future conditions of aquatic resources under a range of alternative development scenarios.”

The study area includes the entire southern tier of West Virginia watersheds—the Gauley, Kanawha, Coal and Gyandotte Rivers; Twelvepole Creek; Tug Fork; and portions of Kentucky.

Petty’s collaborators on the project include Michael P. Strager, an assistant professor of resource economics in WVU’s Davis College, and Paul F. Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute in the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at WVU. Ziemkiewicz pointed out this alternative futures model allows agencies and companies to evaluate the cumulative effects of mining on stream chemistry.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has provided an additional $330,000 to conduct a complementary analysis where WVU researchers assess the potential benefits associated with stream mitigation projects that coal companies may propose to help offset unavoidable mining impacts.