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The Mountaintop Witness

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Science  07 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6171, pp. 592-595
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6171.592

Margaret Palmer started out just studying streams. She's ended up in court, passionately defending them from coal mining.


Basic stream research, such as analyzing carbon and nitrogen dynamics in creeks (this one in Maryland), is still on Palmer's agenda.


Once again, Margaret Palmer was squaring off against a lawyer for a coal company. "I don't mean to pick a fight with you," the attorney said as he cross-examined the academic ecologist, lobbing questions designed to fluster Palmer and raise doubts about her credibility. But even when he suggested her conclusions were shaped by ideology, not data, she remained composed. "Well," she said, "I'll be happy to answer any questions you have about the method."

The stakes were high in the encounter, which unfolded before a federal judge in a West Virginia courtroom last December. Three environmental groups had sued a pair of coal companies, claiming that pollution from their "mountaintop removal" strip mines was harming nearby streams. A victory by the green groups could set a legal precedent, sparking new lawsuits against the controversial mining method.

To bolster their case, the groups had recruited Palmer, a stream ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, to join the legal fray as an expert witness. Her help was considered a huge asset: As a result of research publications, legal testimony, and policy work, the 58-year-old scientist has become perhaps the highest profile scientific opponent of companies involved in mountaintop removal. She's briefed top government regulators and Congress, helping promote stricter oversight. She's even put in a memorable appearance on The Colbert Report, a popular television show.

It's a public role that many scientists would find deeply uncomfortable—and that Palmer herself once would have shunned. Earlier in her career, the tenacious but self-effacing basic researcher kept a low profile, even refusing to return calls from journalists. She dreaded the prospect of this profile, says her husband, Michael Nussman. The attention is "embarrassing for an introvert."

Over the past decade, however, Palmer has undergone a transformation, emerging as an influential voice on complex and contentious environmental issues—and inspiring other researchers to follow. In the early 2000s, she tackled the booming business of restoring rivers, raising troubling questions about its effectiveness. Later, after a heart-wrenching airplane ride, Palmer turned her attention to the headwater streams buried by mountaintop mines in the eastern United States. That experience is now helping her shape a new $27.5 million research center, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), designed to engage scientists in policymaking.

Palmer "wants her science to be relevant," says Margaret Janes, a retired policy analyst with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, who first recruited Palmer as an expert witness for court battles. And that's led to a willingness to risk some private, and public, discomfort. Her courtroom interactions with industry lawyers, for instance, are becoming "more and more hostile," Palmer says. "It's increasingly personal."

An awakening

Palmer had her feet wet from an early age. Born on an Air Force base in Florida, she was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, playing in nearby Appalachian creeks and scampering after crayfish. "I grew up in a working-class setting," she says. "I wasn't going to be a housewife." The youngest of four sisters, Palmer was the only person in her family to go into science. A college course in invertebrate ecology got her hooked, and Palmer went on to earn a Ph.D. in coastal oceanography from the University of South Carolina, studying benthic invertebrates in estuaries.

Her first academic job, however, took Palmer far from the ocean. Arriving at Wabash College in 1983, Palmer found herself in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a small town about an hour northwest of Indianapolis. She quickly adapted her research to look at freshwater streams. And teaching at the all-male college, she says, led to a political awakening as she began to read up on feminism.

In 1987, Palmer moved to College Park, Maryland, after her husband became a congressional staffer. (He now heads the American Sportfishing Association.) In addition to biology, she taught feminist theory and the philosophy of science. "It changed my perspective on why we do the kind of science we do," she says. "On some level, it influenced my interest in doing science that has policy implications."

While she and Nussman raised two sons, Palmer studied the role of patchy habitats within streams. She discovered that natural fragmentation—such as the scattered clumps of decomposing leaves on the riverbed—boosts populations of copepods and larval flies. In another study, she found turbulence from water flowing over rough streambeds enhances restoration of ecological processes.

During the 1990s, those seemingly abstruse findings became relevant to a policy debate. Ecological restoration was becoming a big business, as government regulators required developers to compensate for damage to streams and wetlands by creating or restoring similar ecosystems elsewhere. But contractors were following crude blueprints, and Palmer's research made her skeptical that restored streams could match the intricate functions of natural ones. She kick-started a review through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, which ultimately assembled a database of 37,000 stream restoration projects. In an influential study, her team concluded that more than $1 billion per year had been spent on such projects since 1990 with scant follow-up to measure effectiveness (Science, 29 April 2005, p. 636). The scrutiny spurred many restoration funders to require more monitoring, although critics say that it still often ignores important ecological factors.

The restoration study was just one marker of Palmer's increasing engagement in policy. The Ecological Society of America tapped her to help craft a manifesto for "pragmatic ecological science" that could help address pressing environmental problems (Science, 28 May 2004, p. 1251). And not long after, she was asked to head the $15 million Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, about 100 km southeast of Washington, D.C. It wasn't easy sailing. Palmer had to lay off support staff and raze an unsafe lab, but she won a $1.7 million grant from NSF to replace an aging research pier.

Where many scientists struggle to juggle research and family, Palmer faced a three-way balancing act as an emerging public figure. One coping mechanism was a weekly dinner with two other female faculty members, a psychologist and a chemist, in College Park. Calling themselves "The No Club," they discussed invitations and obligations and recommended which ones should be declined, to manage their workloads. "You will be asked to be on more committees than you can be on," Palmer says, especially women and minorities. "You have to figure out which ones really matter."

Leaning forward.

In a 2010 appearance on The Colbert Report, Palmer pointedly described the problems with mining coal by removing mountaintops.


Moving mountains

Palmer had a hard time saying no to the fight against mountaintop mining. The technique had begun in earnest in the early 1990s as companies chased thin seams of lower sulfur coal. The beds are too far underground for traditional strip mining, but not thick or deep enough for tunneling. The solution, essentially, is to blow up the top of a mountain. Bulldozers then shove the rocky debris into adjacent valleys, exposing the coal, but burying tiny headwater streams. (To date, mountaintop removal has filled in more than 2000 kilometers of streams throughout Appalachia.)

As the practice spread, it attracted controversy. Coal companies say they take pains to restore the original topography and create new rocky channels to replace buried streams, as regulations require. But community activists and environmentalists argue that the industry and government officials downplay the damage done by mining and overstate their ability to repair it.

Palmer entered the debate in 2003, after Appalachian Mountain Advocates called. The Lewisburg, West Virginia–based group wanted her to review coal companies' plans to create replacement streams, which the companies submitted with their permit applications for new mines. To show Palmer the issue firsthand, a nonprofit group called SouthWings flew her over existing mines. Palmer and her husband had built a weekend cabin in West Virginia years earlier, overlooking the Cacapon River, so she expected to see pockets of mining. But peering out the window of the Cessna, she felt overwhelmed by the extent of wasteland. "My God," she thought. "I've got to do something."

When Palmer pored over the available data, a clear picture emerged. Aquatic habitat was damaged even far downstream from valley fills. No scientific evidence indicated that the rebuilt waterways could effectively replace small headwater streams. The government regulators who approved such mitigation, she says, tend to focus on rebuilding lost miles of streams, but not their ecological functions. When a bill to ban valley fill was introduced into the U.S. Senate in 2009, Palmer told the committee bluntly: "[T]he streams that are buried when rocks and dirt are dumped … into the valleys below are gone forever."


Mountaintop mines, such as this one in West Virginia, end up filling stream valleys with tons of debris, creating wedges of rubble (center). The waste leaches sulfate and other ions that harm aquatic life.


Some courts began to agree. In 2007, for instance, a federal judge blocked permits for several major mines, based in part on Palmer's analysis. Although a higher court ultimately struck down the heart of that decision, the attention helped build the case for tighter regulation. After Barack Obama became president in 2009, for example, senior environmental administrators asked her to brief them on the science of mining impacts. Soon, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they would take a closer look at requests for 79 mining permits in four states.

In 2010, the publication of an analysis led by Palmer reinforced the argument that mountaintop stream mitigation could not restore what was lost (Science, 8 January 2010, p. 148). The report, which included new data on streams from West Virginia, made headlines, stoked by a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "It gave EPA the national spotlight, the scientific validation for taking the steps it did, even with withering political opposition," says Donald Boesch, head of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge. "It had enormous impact." The resulting regulatory crackdown, which included tightening the requirements for permits, persuaded some mining companies to abandon mountaintop removal.

Others have elected to fight the regulations and the research behind them. Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, has said that EPA's approach "is based on bad science." For example, the industry has argued that using populations of mayflies as a gauge of stream health is inappropriate, because they say these insects are ultrasensitive to water quality. "As if it mattered, more bugs are killed overwhelmingly by car windshields than on mine sites," claims a glossy flyer produced by Walker Machinery Co., which sells and services mining equipment in 33 counties.

Getting personal

Such rancor lies just under the surface in the staid, oak-paneled courtrooms where Palmer has been asked to testify. Looking for ammunition to discredit the researcher, industry attorneys have used state sunshine laws to request copies of Palmer's university e-mails over many years. Last summer, a free-market think tank demanded EPA turn over copies of her communications with agency scientists.

Once in court, opponents have tried hard to persuade judges to throw out her testimony as that of biased activist. "[S]he has adopted an uncompromising opinion about surface mining that leaves no room for objective scientific analysis," lawyers for the Highland Mining Co. of Logan, West Virginia, argued unsuccessfully in an April 2012 case. Palmer's "fundamental opposition to all surface mines in central Appalachia … renders her opinion both untrustworthy and unhelpful to the Court."

Such attacks highlight just how seriously companies take Palmeris stature, says Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown. "The desire to exclude her testimony shows the fear that the industry has that her science will persuade decision-makers."

The jousting can get prickly and personal. Palmer has spent countless hours traveling to mines to evaluate streams, reading voluminous files, preparing reports, and sitting in court, paid a consulting fee of $175 an hour and also helping pro bono. During Palmer's December testimony, Shane Harvey, the defense attorney for Elk Run Coal Co., focused on the fact that she had to find time to work on mining issues while on vacation:

Harvey: "I mean I think you told me during your deposition that you were on vacation with your sisters at the beach and you had to write your report down there. Do you remember that?"


Appalachian headwater streams, such as this one in West Virginia, feature diverse communities and streamside vegetation, which purify water and cycle nutrients. Complex bedrock and hydrology help dampen floods.


Streams constructed on crushed fill, such as this one at a mountaintop mine in Kentucky, typically have fewer species, greater temperature variation, more selenium and other pollution, and flash floods.


Palmer: "I had to finish the report there; that's correct."

Harvey: "You had to finish it there. Okay."

Palmer: "It had been started a good while before."

At another point, Harvey tried to pin Palmer down on the industry's rosy interpretation of some key data. But she was skeptical, saying it appeared the company had cherry-picked their numbers. "I would be very surprised if when we looked at all the data if that was a consistent pattern," she said. "And that's why I said many times I'd have to go through and look at all the data, which clearly you have access to and I haven't seen."

Joe Lovett, director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that have employed Palmer as a consultant, says she is unflappable. "I don't think anyone has ever tripped her up." Despite her cool demeanor, however, Palmer has found some of the confrontations unnerving. "Their implication was that I'd done a poor job of preparing and didn't know the science," she says of the coal company attorneys. Palmer herself felt she should have done better. The moments of self-doubt may arise from a self-critical personality. "She tends to think she hasn't made a difference," Nussman says.

Yet her new confidence is unmistakable, underscored by her response when The Colbert Report called in 2010, asking for an interview. The show has nearly 1 million viewers, and host Stephen Colbert is infamous for his withering questions. It would be uncomfortable territory for any academic. Yet Palmer agreed, seeing an opportunity to speak directly to the public.

Before she headed into the floodlights, she wondered "What have I gotten myself into?" But that night, Palmer hit her stride. "She was funny. She was relaxed. Colbert got in her face, and she got right back into his," recalls ecologist David Allan of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Still, any researcher faces some inherent risks when stepping into the role of an advocate. "The more you become a public figure, the less you are perceived as a science-only kind of scientist," says Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. Despite competing demands, Palmer has maintained her basic ecological research, which she feels helps maintain her credibility. "She's keeping her boots muddy," says her former postdoc Emily Bernhardt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

A new experiment

Palmer spends much of her time now in a new office building in Annapolis that houses the NSF-funded National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), which she directs. ("Terrible acronym," Palmer told an attorney during a deposition. "All the good acronyms were gone.")

Palmer led the proposal for the center, which is dedicated to injecting science into policy. Better grounded policy, she hopes, could ultimately minimize the kind of courtroom battles and social conflict that she has experienced with mountaintop mining.

Palmer sees SESYNC as "a giant experiment" in collaboration. It brings together researchers from a broad diversity of disciplines, including economics and political science, to analyze existing data sets that could help solve environmental problems. (Coincidentally, it also shares space with Merrill Lynch, so investment bankers in double-breasted suits walk the halls with fleece-clad ecologists and sociologists.) Recent projects have created a global database of where city dwellers get their water, and examined how psychological methods could be applied to sustainable development.

The center hasn't delved into mountaintop removal issues, but Palmer continues her work. She recently finished drafting a manuscript that evaluates monitoring reports for 434 stream mitigation projects in coal country, which she got through a Freedom of Information Act request. Most show that the streams are suffering from ecological damage, and that the replacements provide poor habitat. "My fears I had when I flew over these mines are turning out to be correct," she says.

Without a doubt, she will again be making the long drive to an Appalachian courtroom to testify about those results. "The fact that she's willing to testify and stick her neck out is remarkable," Parenteau says. "God help us if no scientists would do that."

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