Surface coal mining with valley fills has impaired the aquatic life in numerous streams in the Central Appalachian Mountains. We characterized macroinvertebrate communities from riffles in 37 small West Virginia streams (10 unmined and 27 mined sites with valley fills) sampled in the spring index period (March–May) and compared the assessment results using family- and genus-level taxonomic data. Specific conductance was used to categorize levels of mining disturbance in mined watersheds as low (<500 μS/cm), medium (500–1000 μS/cm), or high (>1000 μS/cm). Four lines of evidence indicate that mining activities impair biological condition of streams: shift in species assemblages, loss of Ephemeroptera taxa, changes in individual metrics and indices, and differences in water chemistry. Results were consistent whether family- or genus-level data were used. In both family- and genus-level nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMS) ordinations, mined sites were significantly separated from unmined sites, indicating that shifts in community structure were caused by mining. Several Ephemeroptera genera (e.g., Ephemerella, Epeorus, Drunella) and their families (Ephemerellidae, Heptageniidae) were correlated most strongly with the primary NMS axis (r > 0.59 for these genera; r > 0.78 for these families). These same Ephemeroptera were absent and, thus, eliminated from most of the mined sites. Total Ephemeroptera richness and relative abundance both declined with increasing mining disturbance. Several other metrics, such as richness, composition, tolerance, and diversity, clearly discriminated unmined vs mined sites. Most family-level metrics performed well and approximated the strength of genus-based metrics. A genus-based multimetric index (MMI) rated more mined sites as impaired than did the family-based MMI. Water-quality variables related to mining were more strongly correlated to NMS axis-1 scores, metrics, and MMIs than were sedimentation and riparian habitat scores. Generally, the correlations between the genus-level MMI and water-quality variables were stronger than the correlations between the family-level MMI and those variables. Our results show that mining activity has had subtle to severe impacts on benthic macroinvertebrate communities and that the biological condition most strongly correlates with a gradient of ionic strength.
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