STRIP MINING AND STREAMS ; Judge: Conductivity Pollution by Alpha Hurt Water Quality

By Ward, Ken | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), June 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

STRIP MINING AND STREAMS ; Judge: Conductivity Pollution by Alpha Hurt Water Quality


Ward, Ken, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Citing what he said was "extensive scientific evidence, a federal judge has ruled for the first time that conductivity pollution from mountaintop removal mining operations is damaging streams in Southern West Virginia. U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers concluded that mines operated by Alpha Natural Resources in Boone and Nicholas counties have "caused or materially contributed to a significant adverse impact to nearby streams, giving citizen groups a major victory that also supports Obama administration efforts to reduce mountaintop removal impacts.

In a 67-page ruling issued Wednesday, Chambers found that mining discharges had not only altered the chemistry of the streams, but also "unquestionably biologically impaired them, leaving both the diversity and abundance of aquatic life "profoundly reduced.

"Losing diversity in aquatic life, as sensitive species are extirpated and only pollution-tolerant species survive, is akin to the canary in a coal mine, the judge wrote.

"As key ingredients to West Virginias once abundant clean water, the upper reaches of West Virginias complex network of flowing streams provide critical attributes functions,in ecological science - that support the downstream water quality relied upon by West Virginians for drinking water, fishing and recreation, and important economic uses, Chambers wrote. "Protecting these uses is the overriding purpose of West Virginia's water quality standards and the goal of the state's permit requirements.

The judge ruled in a case brought in U.S. District Court in Huntington by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club. The groups were represented by lawyers from the Sierra Club, Public Justice, and Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Environmental groups had sued over pollution in two streams, Laurel Creek and Robinson Fork. They alleged violations by Alpha subsidiary Elk Run Coal's East of Stollings Surface Mine and White Castle No. 1 Surface Mine had damaged Laurel Creek in Boone County, and that violations by Alpha subsidiary Alex Energy's Robinson North Surface Mine and the Wildcat Surface Mine had damaged Robinson Fork in Nicholas County.

Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the Highlands Conservancy, said that the ruling "makes it clear that the integrity of our streams must be protected form the real danger of being destroyed by the millions of tiny cuts made by activities like coal mining operations.

"Pollution such as the high conductivity discharges addressed in this litigation represents the steady degradation of streams that is stealing the future from generations to come, Rank said. "Passage of the Clean Water Act over 40 yeas ago was a wise and prescient recognition that waters of the U.S. can support a healthy human population and economy only when those waters are healthy themselves.

Chambers ruled after a two-day trial in December. He found that the coal operations had caused water quality violations, but has not yet decided what sort of penalty or other injunctive relief he will order. …

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