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Stream functional response to mountaintop removal and valley fill coal mining
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Mountaintop removal and valley fill (MTRVF) mining has become a widespread means of coal extraction in the central Appalachians. During MTRVF several hundred meters of overburden are removed to access coal seams, and excess rubble is dumped into adjoining valleys and streams. Filling valleys eliminates stream headwaters and may result in loss of stream ecosystem functions, which are dependent on temporal and lateral connectivity in river networks. To determine the affect of MTRVF on stream ecosystem function, leaf breakdown, which is an ecosystem level attribute of forested streams, was measured in five streams draining MTRVF sites and five reference streams in central West Virginia. Leaf packs of white oak and red maple were installed in these streams in December 2007, leaves were collected in January, February, March, April, and June of 2008, and leaves were washed and processed in the lab. Leaf breakdown rates were significantly slower in filled streams. MTRVF streams were marked by high sediment levels, elevated base flow, elevated conductivity and pH, and a lower density and richness of shredding macroinvertebrates than reference sites, suggesting that slower leaf decay was the result of the combined set of altered conditions in MTRVF streams. Additionally, MTRVF streams showed no species-level difference between red maple and white oak breakdown rates, indicating that MTRVF inhibits control of ecosystem function exerted by leaf species characteristics.
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