, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 367-380
Date: 10 Sep 2003

Impacts of surface mine valley fills on headwater floods in eastern Kentucky

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Abstract

The potential impacts of valley fills associated with mountaintop removal/valley fill (MTR/VF) coal mining on downstream flooding in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and adjacent states are a subject of public debate and scientific uncertainty. This study explored two aspects of this issue. First, hydrologic indices of relative runoff production and surface and subsurface flow detention were applied to conditions typical of headwater and low-order drainage basins in eastern Kentucky. Results show that there is a clear risk of increased flooding (greater runoff production and less surface flow detention) following MTR/VF operations, and suggest that, on balance, valley fills are more likely to increase rather than decrease flood potential. However, there is a wide range of outcomes, qualitatively and quantitatively. Flood risks can be increased or decreased, and the degree of either may vary markedly. The effects of MTR/VF mining on downstream peak flows are highly contingent on local pre- and post-mining conditions, and it would be unwise to apply generalizations to specific sites. Second, the occurrence of flash floods downstream of MTR/VF operations when nearby unmined areas did not flood or had less severe floods has frequently been explained (without supporting data) in terms of locally greater precipitation. The likelihood of such short-range variability of storm precipitation is evaluated by applying the state probability function to NEXRAD radar estimates of precipitation for two 2001 storms which produced flash floods in eastern Kentucky. The spatial structure of the storm precipitation indicates that at the scale of the analysis (pixel size of approximately 2 km) large local variations in storm precipitation are unlikely—that is, the probability of nearby hollows or low-order drainage basins receiving substantially different storm precipitation totals is low.