Time to Talk Turkey Again

By Cindy Rank

No, it’s not November.

Nor is it Thanksgiving or any other recurring celebratory events.

But it is time to revisit one of our perennial topics — Mountaintop Removal mining, or at least a remnant of what was once known as Mountaintop Removal coal mining, or MTR.

These days there are no Mountaintop Removal permits per se, at least none technically listed as MTR. But articles in the Voice from April and July of 2021 mentioned one huge coal mine permit that sure does look like MTR, just without the technical classification as such.

As proposed, the 1,085+ acre Turkeyfoot mine will involve a variety of mining methods to remove some 10 seams of coal.  (‘Highwall’, ‘area’, ‘contour’, ‘auger’, and ‘steep slope‘ mining are all included in the application narrative.)

[Picture that layer cake with tiers of cake separated by layers of frosting. The sought-after coal is the frosting and the interspersed rock/ground/overburden is the cake that must be disposed of so the coal can be extracted — hence the perceived need to get rid of that unwanted rock by dumping it into the stream valleys that for all intents and purposes serve as garbage cans.]

Drainage from the valley fills and some 35+ additional outlets along the perimeter of the permit will drain into tributaries of Marsh Fork and Clear Fork, extending the already extensive mining of Coal River Mountain.

The Turkeyfoot mine was granted its surface mine permit and its NPDES water permit by WVDEP, and is now awaiting the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the four significant Valley Fills included in the permit area.

WV Highlands Conservancy, Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices recommended the Corps not grant the Turkeyfoot 404 permit in comments submitted by Appalachian Mountain Advocates (Appalmad) July 16, 2021.

Since that time the Corps reevaluated the jurisdictional determination of the extent of impact the proposed fills will have on the Waters of the US*, determined there would be some additional length of affected stream, and reissued a Public Notice of comment on April 4, 2022.

[*The Corps is now interpreting “waters of the United States” consistent with the pre-2015 regulatory regime whereas, the previous Public Notice relied on a jurisdiction determination under the June 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which no longer applies.]

With a cover letter dated May 3, 2022, Appalmad resubmitted our earlier comments indicating that “the water quality and stream function effects described in the July 16, 2021 comments are just as applicable to the additional 1,936 linear feet of stream. Indeed, the aggregate effects on watershed health described in the July 16, 2021 comments are only amplified by the Corps’ recognition of effects on additional stream reaches.” 

The other day while talking with a writer who asked what I might consider the most impactful actions we’ve taken with regard to Mountaintop Removal, I indicated the 1998 Bragg v Robinson case and all that it led to, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fill Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, EPA’s veto of the Corps’ Spruce Fork/Pigeonroost 404 fill permit a couple years later, and the multitude of studies and research projects that have documented the negative impacts of MTR and Valley Fills these past 20+ years. 

In compiling our 165 pages of comments (and extensive exhibits in an attached CD) objecting to the Turkeyfoot 404 application, the good folks at Appalmad dusted off and compiled an impressive list of the many expert witness testimonies and research projects that have shed light on the destructive practice of MTR and Valley Fills.Whether or not that documentation will have an impact on the Corps’ (or EPA’s) actions with regard to this Republic Energy/Alpha Metallurgical Coal permit application for Turkeyfoot is yet to be seen.