By Cindy Rank
Out with the old, in with the new. At least that’s the traditional expression about the advent of each new year.
Then again some of the old just never seems to go away. Such is the case with pollution from mountaintop removal and valley fill mining operations in central and southern West Virginia.
The many mining operations that sprawl over the ridges between Clay and Nicholas Counties in Central West Virginia have not only consumed homes and small rural communities but are also destroying stream life, degrading irreplaceable headwater streams. and endangering the biologically diverse and rich ecosystems of the Elk and Gauley Rivers.
Our most recent litigation targets two more mines in this area that are contaminating streams in these two watersheds.
On January 24, 2018 West Virginia Highlands Conservancy joined the Sierra Club, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in a lawsuit against Southeastern Land, LLC, and Fola Coal Company, LLC. for polluting streams from two of their surface coal mines in Clay and Nicholas Counties, the Peachorchard and Ike Fork mines.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Huntington, alleges that runoff from the mines has contaminated two waterways with sulfate and other dissolved solids that are harmful to aquatic life: Peachorchard Branch, a tributary of Twentymile Creek that flows into the Gauley River, and Sycamore Branch, a tributary of Lily Creek that flows into the Elk River.
The legal strategy used in this lawsuit has successfully obtained five previous court orders which have required mining companies to clean up contaminated mine runoff that has biologically impaired eight other West Virginia streams. In all of these cases, mining companies have violated West Virginia’s “narrative” water quality standards, which set general criteria to protect water quality from physical, chemical, biological and hydrological impairment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the federal enforceability of those standards in a January 2017 decision.
The ionic pollutants at issue at the Ike Fork and Peachorchard Surface Mines – measured through the electrical conductivity of water samples – are discharged by virtually every mine in Appalachia that uses fills. These pollutants, identified through electrical conductivity measurements, are extremely harmful to aquatic life in streams, and also serve as an indicator of other possible pollution problems.
Both mines at issue in this current litigation were previously owned by Consol Energy Inc. (Fola’s parent company) which paid Southeastern Land LLC $44 million in 2016 to take the mines off their hands and assume liability for issues including that of stream contamination. These contaminants are just one more reason on an already too-long list for why these mines endanger the land, water, and people in communities across West Virginia, Kentucky, and portions of Virginia and Tennessee.
Representing plaintiffs in this action are attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates and Public Justice.