News of the week

7/9/2021

Brief synopses of the week’s environmental news. For more information, click the links.

Holy Toledo! Piping plovers return to Ohio

For the first time in over 80 years, piping plovers have successfully nested in Ohio, producing four chicks at Maumee Bay State Park, east of Toledo.

This species of sandpiper, with its sharp peep pee-lo call, has been listed as endangered since 1986, due to its possible extinction around the Great Lakes. In recent years, birding field guides have stopped showing the piping plover’s range extending into Ohio.

Those involved in the bird’s recovery credit habitat restoration as the reason the plover has returned to Ohio. They also praise the nearly 100 volunteers who monitored the mating pair, nicknamed Nellie and Nish. Since their listing as endangered, mating pairs of piping plovers have increased around the Great Lakes. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Conservation groups seek more protection for birds in New York’s renewable energy development

At the end of June, a group of conservation and environmental organizations filed suit against the New York Office of Renewable Energy Siting. The plaintiffs claim that the agency failed to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) during its development of enforcement regulations for climate change legislation.

The suit charges that the agency took shortcuts in environmental and public review as it rushed to implement the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, leaving little protection for at-risk birds.

Environmental review and public comments were mandated in the establishment of the New York State agency with the passage of the climate change legislation in April of 2020. The legislation requires the Office to . . .

  • Establish regulations and uniform standards that encompass the environmental impacts common to large, renewable energy projects, and identify mitigation measures to address those impacts.

  • Develop draft permits for public comment and local community input, and ensure that complete applications are acted upon within one year, except in the case of certain former commercial and industrial sites, which will be reviewed within six months.

The American Bird Conservancy, one of the groups behind the lawsuit, claims that the recommendations that it and other bird conservation groups provided were “overwhelmingly ignored.” The great concern of the conservation groups is wind turbines. Birds and wind turbines don’t get along. The huge windmills, some as tall as an eight-story building, kill more than half a million birds each year. (American Bird Conservancy)

Apes’ homeland threatened

A combination of climate change, human population growth, and changes in land use threaten to severely reduce the habitats of gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

This is the finding of a study conducted by a global team of researchers that analyzed data collected on hundreds of habitat sites over 20 years. They looked at the apes’ populations as well as conservation efforts and threats, such as deforestation. The findings were published in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

Under a worst-case scenario, one in which little is done to mitigate climate change and land use goes unchecked, the researchers predict a 94 percent loss of habitat. Their best-case scenario still has a habitat loss of 85 percent.

All African apes are listed by the International Union for Conservation as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The rest of Africa’s wildlife, particularly the big ones that come to mind when folks think of Africa—giraffe, lions, zebras, elephants, etc.—find themselves threatened as well, as this write-up in The New Yorker so well illustrates. (African Wildlife Foundation)

“Vortex of Life” found off the coast of Peru and Chile

A team of ocean experts for the first time surveyed the species living within a stretch of ocean between two underwater mountain ranges, the Salas y Gomez and Nazca Ridges, that lie off the coasts of Chile and Peru. The scientists found an immense amount of life within the expanse of nearly 1,800 miles of ocean.

The scientists identified 58 invertebrates and 65 fish species, many of which are to be found only in these waters that sometimes exceed depths of 13,000 feet.

Ocean currents from the north and south bring in nutrients and enable this portion of the Pacific Ocean to thrive. Unfortunately, these same currents are also bringing in plastics that can harm and poison the ocean wildlife. (Conservation News)

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Appalachian Voices releases report: Repairing the Damage: The costs of delaying reclamation at modern-era mines

I took part in a webinar on Wednesday with Appalachian Voices, a marvelous group of people who do their part to protect the land and water, as well as the people and animals of Appalachia. The webinar coincided with and was in support of the release of the organization’s report on the reclamation of Appalachian coal mines.

Coal is almost synonymous with southern Appalachia. For generations through this mountainous region, it was common for mining companies to open a mine, dig out all the coal, then leave. If the mine spoiled the land, it was someone else’s problem. Traditional mining can lead to the tainting of groundwater and the pollution of nearby streams with metals and chemical compounds. Sulfur is the most conspicuous pollutant from the mines, turning streams into stinking, lifeless waterways and staining rocks a distinctive orange.

Environmental degradation from mining increased in the 1940s, with the introduction of larger earth moving equipment and the proliferation of more surface mining operations. Surface mining, or as most folks in the mountains call it, strip mining, increases the pollution of streams and leads to more erosion.

To address these mining problems, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) into law in 1977. The law was not as stringent as it could have been, but it was nonetheless better than legislation considered under the Ford administration and certainly an improvement on the loose mining regulations at the state level.

SMCRA requires that mines be reclaimed once the coal is dug from the ground, that they be returned to forest or turned into something people can use. A former mine was transformed into an airport in Hazard, Kentucky. Outside of Bridgeport, West Virginia, a mine was turned into a golf course.

SMCRA also requires that mining companies post bonds when commencing a mine, with the monies from the bonds paying for the reclamation. Though SMCRA is federal law, the administration is done by the states, and therein lies the problem. States have insufficiently secured bonding mechanisms and have required bond amounts that cannot fully reclaim the mines.

The folks at Appalachian Voices examined mining records across seven Appalachian states where coal mining occurs—Alabama, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—finding 207,000 acres of unreclaimed land and 426,000 acres that have been partially reclaimed, for a total of 633,000 acres needing full or at least some degree of reclamation. That is an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

Appalachian Voices estimates the cost of reclaiming these mines to be between $7.5 and $9.8 billion. Bonds for all the states add up to $3.8 billion. These figures come to us at a time when there is a new round of coal companies declaring bankruptcy and abandoning mines. Appalachian Voices recommends the following:

  1. The Office of Surface Mining Regulation and Enforcement (OSMRE) should work with states to complete a nationwide inventory of outstanding reclamation needs and costs at all mining permits, and make this data publicly accessible.

  2. OSMRE should require full-cost bonding and disallow alternative bonding structures, including self-bonding and pool bonding.

  3. Regulatory agencies must enforce reclamation requirements more strictly, ensuring timely cleanup is taking place and that coal companies are not idling mines to delay fulfilling their obligations.

  4. Regulatory agencies should plan for long-term water treatment. Some mines create water pollution that must be treated over many decades. Funding mechanisms, financed by coal companies, should be created to provide treatment costs as long as treatment is needed.

  5. To address mines where permits have already been forfeited but where bonding will not cover the full cost of reclamation, the federal government should fund a program to make up for bonding shortfalls, and ensure high-quality, timely reclamation. Projects proposed for funding should have high reclamation standards that can be completed in a timely manner, and that consider the needs and desires of the surrounding communities. Such a program should not act as a coal company bailout — it should not further incentivize companies to offload reclamation obligations by transferring mines to subsidiary companies or by declaring bankruptcy.

A summary of the report is here.