Mountaintops defoliated by mining companies would be sown with native flowering plants under a new law in Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear signed a bill into law last week intended to restore pollen-producing vegetation that honeybees need to survive in the central Appalachians, where mining has obliterated entire ridge tops and the blooming trees and shrubs that once grew on them.
Debate over the issue in the Kentucky Legislature called attention to a problem that had received little attention: How mountaintop removal coal mining 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 to the coal, and environmentalists, who say it has irreversibly harmed mountains and streams.
“I signed this legislation because I support efforts to replenish the natural habitat for Kentucky’s honeybees, and it will contribute to our state’s overall environmental health by improving soil stability,” Beshear said.
The U.S. honeybee population has been decimated by a mysterious ailment dubbed colony collapse disorder, a disturbing problem because more than 90 crops, from almonds to tomatoes, rely in large part on the insects for pollination. But starvation, typically a top cause of mortality, eclipsed colony collapse as the top cause of bee losses last winter, according to a survey of beekeepers reported in the January issue of the Journal of Apicultural Research.
Carl Shoupe, a Harlan County environmentalist, said honeybees are only one of many creatures adversely affected by mountaintop mining, and that the best way to protect them is to stop the practice altogether.
“If they didn’t do that, the honeybees would have all kinds of stuff to eat,” Shoupe said. “They’re just destroying the ecosystem of Appalachia.”
Regulatory agencies dictate the kinds of vegetation coal companies can plant on mine sites. Often, the reclamation plans call for a variety of grasses — not the native sourwoods, tulip poplars, goldenrods, asters and other blooming trees and plants that bees need. By enacting the law, the legislature sets a precedent for other agencies and industries to follow, said Tammy Horn, a bee researcher at Eastern Kentucky University’s Environmental Research Institute.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the mining industry supported the legislation that led to the new law because honeybees are critical to the environment.
Horn told lawmakers during debate last month the measure is a step toward helping to stabilize honeybee populations in the Appalachians by putting state regulatory agencies on notice that bee-friendly reclamation plans should be approved.
Some Kentucky coal companies, Horn said, have already gotten permission from state regulatory agencies and have begun planting vegetation specifically for honeybees. Such actions, she said, have helped restore some of the pre-mining diversity to the Appalachians.
The legislation was House Bill 175.