Wetlands forming on VA surface mines, impacts uncertain
Wednesday, December 6, 2023
A recent report found wetlands forming on surface mines in Virginia can benefit the state.
The wetlands form because surface mining flattens land. There are lingering questions about how wetland creation balances the loss of naturally occurring wetlands from the same mining.
Wally Smith, vice president of the environmental group Clinch Coalition, was surprised to see how many wetlands surface mining created. He pointed out wetlands can combat increased flooding.
"When you have all these new wetlands that are occurring on the top of a mountain where there was historically not a wetland there. When it does rain and you do have a storm event, the runoff that's coming off of that site, some of it at least, is going to end up stored in those wetlands," Smith explained. "That can potentially slow the amount of water and runoff that's going to make its way downstream and contribute to a flood."
He cautioned it is dependent on the health of the wetlands. If they are not as strong, they could fall apart, leading to increased runoff and flooding. Smith observed only time will tell how impactful the new wetlands are.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported flood days doubled between 2010 and 2020. By 2050, the agency estimated parts of Virginia could experience 85 days of flooding each year.
Virginia policymakers have taken steps to slow flooding, but critics see the wetlands as insignificant. Some might be filled or drained with construction and land management activity. Smith hopes the report's findings encourage policymakers to reconsider how wetland conservation is done.
"Think about, what value does that wetland have, for both that property and the surrounding landscape?" Smith urged. "I think we need a reevaluation of how we're protecting, and if we're protecting, many of these wetlands, even if they're artificial on a former surface mine."
Aside from wetlands, other Virginia environmental groups are working to reforest former mine lands, paying for it with carbon offset credits. The state's Department of Energy has taken charge through funds allocated by Congress in 2016. Between 2017 and 2020, the state received four $10 million grants for the work.
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