WVHC, WV Rivers and Sierra Club Secure Historic Settlement to Restore West Virginia Streams Harmed by Coal Mining Pollution

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.”

Editor’s Note: On March 29, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency published a notice in the Federal Register of a proposed Consent Decree between plaintiffs and the agency to resolve some of the issues at the heart of this legal action. The notice can be found here: https://bit.ly/49jjztF

There is a 30-day comment period, and we expect opposition from the normal suspects. Please respond to the notice as indicated and/or be looking for Action notices to and from other environmental groups urging support for the proposal. These biologically impaired streams in the Hobet mining area of the Mud River and Big Ugly Creek in Lincoln County need all the help they can get.