Role of Soil Health in Maintaining Environmental Sustainability of Surface Coal Mining

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Mountaintop coal mining (MCM) in the Southern Appalachian forest region greatly impacts both soil and aquatic ecosystems. Policy and practice currently in place emphasize water quality and soil stability but do not consider upland soil health. Here we report soil organic carbon (SOC) measurements and other soil quality indicators for reclaimed soils in the Southern Appalachian forest region to quantify the health of the soil ecosystem. The SOC sequestration rate of the MCM soils was 1.3 MgC ha-1 yr-1 and stocks ranged from 1.3 ± 0.9 to 20.9 ± 5.9 Mg ha-1 and contained only 11% of the SOC of surrounding forest soils. Comparable reclaimed mining soils reported in the literature that are supportive of soil ecosystem health had SOC stocks 2.5− 5 times greater than the MCM soils and sequestration rates were also 1.6−3 times greater. The high compaction associated with reclamation in this region greatly reduces both the vegetative rooting depth and infiltration of the soil and increases surface runoff, thus bypassing the ability of soil to naturally filter groundwater. In the context of environmental sustainability of MCM, it is proposed that the entire watershed ecosystem be assessed and that a revision of current policy be conducted to reflect the health of both water and soil.


"This project was funded by the National Science Foundation Award 0754888. We acknowledge the participants in the 2009 and 2010 Research Experience for Undergraduates hosted by University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. Special thanks to Robert Watts and Chris Barton for their contributions toward data collection. We thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments, which helped to improve the quality of this manuscript." (p. 10271)