Environmental Groups Secure Historic Settlement to Restore West Virginia Streams Harmed by Coal Mining Pollution

CHARLESTON, W.Va.— In a landmark victory, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition have reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the longstanding issue of ionic toxicity pollution in West Virginia streams caused by coal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining and other forms of surface coal mining harm streams by producing high levels of ionic toxicity pollution. This pollution can increase the “conductivity” – or salinity – of freshwater streams, making the water too salty for aquatic life to survive and disrupting entire ecosystems. Ionic toxicity can also impact communities by affecting drinking water quality and increasing water treatment costs.

The proposed consent decree, published in the Federal Register today, requires the EPA to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for ionic toxicity pollution for 11 high-priority West Virginia streams by January 15, 2025. A TMDL is a “pollution budget” designed to restore streams that are not meeting all of the uses protected by the Clean Water Act. In this case, the streams at issue are “biologically impaired” because of the effects of ionic toxicity on aquatic life in the streams.

The consent decree comes after decades of advocacy and legal action by the Sierra Club and its partners to compel the EPA to fulfill its obligations under the Clean Water Act. Earlier this month, Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and West Virginia Rivers Coalition, represented by lawyers from Appalachian Mountain Advocates, followed up on a March 2023 warning to EPA that it was overdue in developing TMDLs for dozens of streams in the Lower Guyandotte River Watershed by filing a lawsuit against EPA in federal court in West Virginia.

“For years it has been painful for so many people living along streams polluted by coal mining operations to either have to move away or stay and live with the destruction and diminished water quality mining leaves behind,” said Mining Committee Chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Cindy Rank. “After years of pleading, cajoling, reasoning with and finally turning to lawsuits to require appropriate cleanup plans to make whole again the waters that mean so much to so many, this agreement is a very hopeful step forward.”

“For far too long, West Virginia has failed to meet its obligations to protect our waters from coal mining pollution, willfully allowing the health of thousands of stream miles to continue to decline,” said West Virginia Rivers Coalition Interim Executive Director Autumn Crowe. “We are encouraged that this agreement will finally begin to get our damaged streams the help they deserve.”

“This is a monumental step forward in our ongoing fight to protect West Virginia’s precious wildlife and natural resources,” said Sierra Club West Virginia Chapter Director Honey May. “By holding the coal industry accountable and ensuring the development of TMDLs, we are safeguarding the habitat of countless aquatic species and preserving the ecological integrity of our streams.  And that means that generations of West Virginians can continue to enjoy fishing, swimming, and other recreation, while also protecting drinking water sources.”

“Today, we’re celebrating a big win for our streams and the life they support,” said Sierra Club West Virginia Chapter Chair Jim Kotcon. “With this agreement to set the first-ever rules for ionic toxicity, we’re not just cleaning up our waterways in West Virginia; we’re setting an example for the whole country. We’ve waited too long for clean, safe water, and it’s time to hold mining companies responsible for their pollution.”

About the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been working since 1967 to preserve and protect West Virginia’s natural resources. Learn more at wvhighlands.org.

About the West Virginia Rivers Coalition
The West Virginia Rivers Coalition is dedicated to promoting clean and healthy waters for all. More at WVRivers.org.

About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person’s right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.

Photo: Pictured is a photo from a 2022 report prepared for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection by Tetra Tech on total maximum daily loads for the Lower Guyandotte River watershed.