OU scientists tell regulators that mining could endanger virgin forest
December 16, 2002
By Jim Phillips
Athens NEWS Senior Writer

Officially, Ohio University says it may not oppose a plan by a coal company to mine directly under Dysart Woods, a virgin forest OU owns in Belmont County.

Two scientists on the university faculty, however, told the state's top mining regulator Thursday that they believe granting the Alledonia-based Ohio Valley Coal Co. a permit to mine would be an irresponsible shot in the dark.

OU plant biologists Brian McCarthy and Kim Brown told Michael Sponsler, chief of the Ohio Division of Mineral Resource Management, that it's impossible to say how great a risk the mine would pose to Dysart Woods, Ohio's most significant stand of old-growth forest.

Opponents of the mine worry that it could lower the water table under the forest and cause the trees to die of thirst. McCarthy and Brown maintain that studies commissioned by the coal company, which claim to show that old-growth trees don't rely on groundwater but get their moisture from rain and surface soil, don't meet the rigorous standards of hard science. And, they say, the kind of peer-reviewed research they're talking about simply hasn't been done.

"We really don't know, we're just finding out now, where these trees get their water from," said McCarthy.

The two were part of a group of 10 people who met with Sponsler to try to convince him to deny Ohio Valley's latest permit application, to mine underneath Dysart. The coal company plans to use underground "room-and-pillar" mining beneath the 70 acres or so of the forest that contains Dysart's oldest trees. It claims that the method it plans to use will never cause subsidence of the surface, and won't hurt the old trees.

Ohio Valley owns the coal under Dysart, but OU owns the forest itself, which is located about 80 miles northeast of Athens. OU President Robert Glidden has said publicly that allowing room-and-pillar, rather than the more destructive longwall method of mining, under the old-growth section of Dysart may be an acceptable compromise that will adequately protect the trees. However, OU recently hired experienced environmental attorney Robert Shostak of Athens, in case the university decides it has to appeal the mining permit.

The meeting with Sponsler was set up by Chad Kister, head of the environmental advocacy group Dysart Defenders. Sponsler agreed to listen to critics of the mining proposal, though he noted that the official public comment period on Ohio Valley's permit application has ended.

"We're certainly interested in what you have to say," he told the group. "If there is information here that will enhance our review, we'll certainly use it."

Brown and McCarthy contended that the value of Dysart Woods is literally incalculable in economic terms and as a living laboratory.

McCarthy noted that forest economists have recently been debating the question of how to assign a dollar value to resources such as virgin forests, and that the general consensus seems to be that it's impossible.

"A forest is only virgin once," he pointed out. "There is really no way to place a dollar value on these ecosystems before they're disrupted... You can't evaluate an old-growth forest. It is invaluable, because there is no way to replace it, and there is no human-mediated way to restore it."

Brown said old-growth forests like Dysart are not just irreplaceable natural resources -- they are also invaluable research sites to study issues of growing importance, including how trees act as carbon sinks to sequester carbon in greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. To maintain their value as living laboratories, she argued, "it's really important to keep them sheltered from impact as much as possible."

McCarthy agreed. "They represent our only undisturbed benchmark in the natural landscape," he said. "They really represent the pieces of control, if you will, in a large-scale landscape experiment."

STEVEN COHEN, A SPOKESPERSON for Ohio Valley, said Thursday that the company has paid for a more than decade-long study by experts from West Virginia University and Wright State University, which concluded that potential dewatering by an underground mine posed no major threat to Dysart's trees. McCarthy and Brown, however, said such "research" wouldn't pass muster in the scientific community, and that they've been unable to locate any research in peer-reviewed journals to support Ohio Valley's claims that Dysart's old trees drink directly from the rain and upper soil.

"Both Dr. Brown and I know that the data is not there in the primary literature to make that claim," McCarthy said.

Sponsler said afterwards, however, that some existing studies of the issue were in fact peer reviewed, though they may not have been published in the journals searched by McCarthy and Brown. And while peer-reviewed research is the best quality, he said, a regulatory agency must rely on what's available.

"The reality of it is, to make everyday practical decisions, you've got to rely on data from a lot of different sources," he said.

Many of those attending the meeting were OU and Hocking College students involved in Dysart Defenders. OU student Sarah Fick told Sponsler that while the mine planned for under Dysart may not collapse for decades, the forest's life is potentially indefinite if it's not disturbed.

"I've never seen a man-made thing last forever, and it really scares me," she said.

Sponsler said Thursday that he can't estimate when he will rule on the permit application, but that it won't be before the end of the year.