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Historic Federal Decision Finds West Virginia Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Companies Guilty of Damaging Streams

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Historic Federal Decision Finds West Virginia Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Companies Guilty of Damaging Streams

Believe it or not, no federal court in the U.S. had ever ruled that high conductivity discharges from coal mines were harmful to streams until this week.

Everything changed with a historic decision in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia that found two companies guilty of violating clean water protections. The decision was a result of a citizen lawsuit filed more than two years ago accusing mountaintop removal mines owned by Alex Energy and Elk Run Coal Co. contaminated waters in Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork with sulfate and other dissolved solids, adding toxicity to the ecosystem of aquatic creatures.

Streams in West Virginia have been damaged as a result of mountaintop coal mine removal, a federal court found this week. Photo credit: Brian Stansberry via Sierra Club

“Pollution such as the high conductivity discharges addressed in this litigation represents the steady degradation of streams that is stealing the future from generations to come,” Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said in a statement from the Sierra Club. “Passage of the Clean Water Act over 40 years ago was a wise and prescient recognition that waters of the US can support a healthy human population and economy only when those waters are healthy themselves.

"[The federal] court decision makes it clear that the integrity of our streams must be protected from the real danger of being destroyed by the millions of tiny cuts made by activities like the coal mining operations along Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork.”

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed the suit. The decision represents a change of heart for federal courts. Guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on mountaintop removal's impact on streams was struck down in In July 2011. Now, the court ruled that the process results in a loss of diversity for aquatic life because "only pollution-tolerant species survive" in what were once thriving aquatic ecosystems.

“This decision further confirms that the science overwhelmingly shows that coal mines in Appalachia are harming streams due to conductivity pollution,” said Aaron Isherwood, Managing Attorney for the Sierra Club. “The court’s ruling further underscores the need for EPA to engage in rulemaking to protect Appalachian streams from conductivity pollution that is very harmful to aquatic life.”

Though the suit dealt specifically with Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork, Jim Hecker, co-counsel in the case and Environmental Enforcement Director at Public Justice, said the problem is widespread. He believes the decision will now force companies to internalize treatment costs they had been avoiding.

"In an earlier West Virginia case that was settled, a mining company estimated that the cost to construct a treatment system to remove conductivity from a 1000 gallon-per-minute flow of wastewater is over $18 million,” Hecker said.

Though the decision is a landmark decision for the environment, it is merely one case and has not resulted in permanent legislation at the federal level, much less in West Virginia.

“As the court recognized in its decision, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is not enforcing its own narrative standards against mountaintop removal coal mines,” Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said. “Unfortunately, that means it's up to citizens like us to enforce the law and protect our precious streams.

"Ultimately, protecting streams is not just for aquatic life, it is for us.” 

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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