FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Mountaintop removal (MTR) mining?has obliterated flowering trees and plants that honeybees need for food in the central Appalachians, and some Kentucky lawmakers are asking coal companies to plant pollen-producing vegetation when they finish digging.
A nonbinding measure passed Thursday in a House committee.
Before the vote, Tammy Horn, a bee researcher at Eastern Kentucky University’s Environmental Research Institute, exhorted lawmakers to approve the measure that would “encourage” coal companies to plant a variety of nectar- and pollen-producers on mountains that have been deforested by mining.
In doing so, Horn called attention to a problem that has received little attention in the debate over so-called mountaintop removal mining: how it affects Appalachia’s insect population, particularly honeybees that need flowering plants to survive.
In mountaintop removal mining, forests are cleared and rock is blasted apart to get to coal buried underneath. The leftover dirt, rock and rubble is dumped into nearby valleys, sometimes covering streams. The practice has for years been a source of contention between coal operators, who say it is the most effective way to get at the coal, and environmentalists, who say it has irreversibly harmed the mountains and streams.
Coal companies usually plant grasses on mined land — not the native sourwoods, tulip poplars, goldenrods, asters and other blooming trees and plants that bees need.
“That creates a desert from the bee’s perspective,” Horn told the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, which typically gets first crack at any legislation affecting Kentucky’s coal industry. That committee, stacked with lawmakers sympathetic to mining, unanimously approved legislation on Thursday that calls for the use of such vegetation in land reclamation.
The legislation simply encourages coal companies to plant flowering trees and plants. The sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Hazard, assured fellow lawmakers that it would not require coal companies to comply.
“It’s totally at their option if they want to do it,” Steele said.
Even so, Horn lauded the measure as a step toward helping to stabilize decreasing bee populations in the Appalachians because it puts state regulatory agencies on notice that reclamation plans aimed at helping bees should be approved.
Some Kentucky coal companies, Horn said, have already begun planting trees and other vegetation specifically for honeybees. In doing so, she said, they have helped restore some of the pre-mining diversity to the Appalachians.
“By planting trees and under canopy that are high-nectar and high-pollen producers, coal companies can better replicate the diverse Appalachian forest landscape that was in place prior to surface mining,” Horn said.
Don Gibson, director of permitting and regulatory affairs for International Coal Group in Kentucky, said his company recognizes the need for research at a time when a mysterious ailment known as colony collapse disorder has been decimating the U.S. honeybee population. Gibson said the company has 30 beehives on former coal mine sites where blooming trees and plants have been added to provide food.
Kentucky Coal Association Vice President David Moss said mining companies realize the difficulties honeybees are facing nationally and that they want to find ways to help the tiny insects.
Moss said the efforts of coal companies on behalf of bees contradict claims by environmentalists that mountaintop mining creates moonscapes.
“We are officially saying that this is the farthest from the truth, that many positive things happen from reclamation, and this is another example,” he said.
Harlan County resident Carl Shoupe, a member of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said coal mining hurts creatures large and small and that the mountains would have ample blooming plants for bees if coal companies didn’t destroy them.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell everybody,” Shoupe said. “This mountaintop removal is just devastating the whole ecosystem, and no one wants to listen.”