Mussel cartoon, © Bruce Plante

Mussel Atrophy

How coal is killing America’s freshwater mussels

Who cares about some little mussel that inhabits a few rivers in eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia? Well, if you happen to live in the area, news that the tan riffleshell is on the verge of extinction could mean that your water isn’t safe to drink. For the rest of us, it’s yet another sign that pollution is taking a very serious toll on the environment.

These endangered mussels are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for Appalachian rivers, and they’re just one of 10 species identified in a new report released today called Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink.

Like all freshwater mussels, the tan riffleshell makes its living by eating small particles in the water. These so-called “filter feeders” remove sediment and other pollutants, thereby keeping our streams healthy enough to support other plants and animals, including ourselves. So when these little shellfish start disappearing, that means one of nature’s vital water filters is broken and can longer keep up with all the pollution being dumped into the river.

North America once boasted some 300 species of freshwater mussels, according to the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society. But as a result of land development, over-harvesting and chronic pollution over the last 200 years, 38 mussel species are already thought to be extinct and another 77 are considered imperiled.

Today, the greatest threat to mussels comes from various by-products of coal mining and coal-burning power plants. These pollutants contaminate our waterways with heavy metals and other environmental toxins that can kill mussels as well as countless other plants and animals.

Mussels aren’t the only ones threatened by fossil fuel development, however. More familiar imperiled species include:

  • Bowhead Whale: The remainder of the endangered bowhead whale population is at risk from contaminants and noise from off shore oil drilling and deadly collisions with ships. An oil spill could easily wipe out the small population of whales, which exists only in Arctic waters.

    Oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle

    This Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was rescued from the Gulf oil spill.

  • Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle: According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kemp’s ridley is the most seriously endangered of all sea turtles, and they only breed in Gulf waters. In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf oil disaster, 156 sea turtle deaths were recorded – most of them Kemp’s ridleys.
  • Whooping Crane: There are just 437 whooping cranes in the wild today, after overcoming near extinction in the 1940s. But the proposed Keystone Pipeline would run along the crane’s entire migratory path from Canada to Texas, and could destroy the flock with toxic waste , collisions and electrocutions from power lines, and the risk of oil spills.

Drilling in the Arctic. Spilling oil in the Gulf. Building a pipeline across the country. Removing mountaintops to get at more coal. All of these actions have dire consequences for our land and wildlife. Fossil fuels are dirty and dangerous, and they’re pushing many at-risk plant and animal species toward extinction. Oil company executives take home millions of dollars every year while the rest of us have to clean up the mess. It’s time to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and rescue these species from the brink.

To learn more about the top 10 U.S. species threatened by fossil fuels, visit http://fuelingextinction.org.

Read more about the importance of freshwater mussels on Defenders blog and in our magazine.

Watch the interview below with “mussel man” Monte McGregor, a malacologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources:

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