Jim Justice Mining Operation Endangers Public Health and Ecology, Says Scientific Center

Center for Biological Diversity calls upon federal and state officials to provide greater scrutiny of mining permit approved for Justice-owned McDowell County surface mine

By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – Tierra Curry, the senior scientist with the Center of Biological Diversity, has written an eight-page letter to state and federal officials asking the agencies to further review the public health and environmental impact of a surface mine owned by Jim Justice, who earlier this month declared his candidacy for governor of West Virginia.

Justice, who owns the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, is a Democrat. The gubernatorial race is in 2016. He is also the subject of news coverage reporting that he has avoiding paying fines leveled against his mining operations for various environmental violations.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization. The operation in question is the Big Creek surface mine in McDowell County. Last month, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a surface mining permit to Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc. for the operations. In response, Curry wrote, “Please accept these comments from the Center for Biological Diversity concerning impacts to threatened and endangered species and the environment that will result from the proposed Big Creek surface mine. …”

Curry asserts, “In terms of intensity, this permit directly affects public health and safety, harms an ecologically critical area, has highly controversial effects on the environment, will cause and contribute to cumulative impacts in this important ecological area, and directly affects endangered species and their habitat.”

She adds, “More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have now revealed threats posed to human health by pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining includes increased incidence of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.”

Additional Oversight Required
Hence, Curry argues that the agencies responsible for public health and environmental oversight have more work to do. In her letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Curry wrote, “We ask that you undertake further environmental review and analysis before allowing this mining project to move forward. Specifically, we ask you to consider alternatives to the mine as proposed including a no action alternative and an alternative that does not include a valley fill and that buffers and protects all streams from mining activity. We also ask that you seriously weigh these comments given the applicant’s lengthy history of environmental violations when coal mining.”

Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference in April 2015 Photo by Keely Kernan
Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses the impact of climate change upon Appalachia at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference in April 2015
Photo by Keely Kernan

Curry was in Charleston in April, where she was the keynote speaker at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference at the St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center. Recalling that visit, she shared, “When I visited West Virginia this spring for the Preserving Sacred Appalachia Conference, I got to hear spring peepers and whippoorwills and smell the flowering redbuds and trilliums. It was a heartbreaking reminder that when mining companies blast away mountains, they are not just blowing up dirt and rocks. They are blowing up the plants and animals that make the Appalachian Mountains so special, so sacred. Appalachia has more kinds of freshwater mussels, crawdads and salamanders than anywhere else in the world and yet companies are blowing up our natural heritage so that the rich can get richer and poor people can remain stuck in a boom and bust extraction economy that threatens public health and prevents economic diversification.”

Impact upon Water Quality and Habitats
In the letter, Curry notes, “The Big Creek surface mine will discharge into unnamed tributaries of Jacobs Fork, which flows into the Dry Fork of the Tug Fork on the Big Sandy River. The mine will harm more than 5 miles of currently high quality streams. The mine will impact 19 streams totaling 27,102 linear feet including, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 12, 715 feet of intermittent channel, 14,387 feet of ephemeral channel, and 0.15 acres of open water.”

She notes also, “We are writing to call your attention to required environmental documents for the mine including consultation with the USFWS on the northern long-eared bat, a conference with the USFEW on the Big Sandy crayfish, Protection and Enhancement for these two species, and an updated Wildlife Resources Lands Inquiry. We also wish to point out that the water quality impacts analyses for the mine are woefully inadequate.”

Curry notes that the surface mine would destroy 907 acres of primary hardwood habitat – home to the northern long-eared bat. “In short,” says Curry, “northern long-eared bats are interior forest dependent species and removal of 907 acres of their habitat will have significant impact upon the species.”

Big Sandy Crayfish Photo by Guenter Schuster
Big Sandy Crayfish
Photo by Guenter Schuster

The Big Sandy crayfish is also threatened by the mining operation, but as Curry points out, “None of the analyses for the mine have taken into consideration impacts that mining operations will have on the Big Sandy crayfish.” Curry states bluntly, “Both of these species will be harmed by the Big Creek surface mine and your agencies are obligated to safeguard these species from mining activities.”

History of Environmental Violations by Justice Noted
Curry also points out that the company owned by Justice has not provided proper plans to mitigate the impact of its activities. “The documents submitted with the application in no way meet these requirements. The response provided on how the mine will avoid and minimize adverse impacts is a single generic paragraph that includes no specific measures to safeguard water quality, the Big Sandy crayfish, or the capability of Jacobs Fork to continue to support trout.”

She also takes exception with claims by the company “… that downstream water chemistry is not expected to change.” Characterizing that claim as ludicrous, Curry writes, “Surface coal mining causes increased siltation and sedimentation, increased conductivity, increased total dissolved solids, and increased concentrations of pollutants including selenium, aluminum, sulfate, manganese, iron, and bicarbonate ions.”

She argues, “The inadequacy of the analysis is further evidenced in that in addition to stating that downstream water quality will not change, the analysis also says that downstream waters will receive alkaline leachate and that net alkalinity will be raised, which is an acknowledgment that downstream water quality will be changed.”

Curry continues, “Moreover, Jim Justice, the owner of Justice Low Seam Mining, Inc., has a long history of environmental violations at his mining operations including water quality violations. It was reported in July 2014 that coal mines owned by Mr. Justice have been cited for more than 250 environmental violations with unpaid penalties of about $2 million. Of note, a violation was recently issued to a Justice-owned mine by WVDEP for failure to pass runoff through sediment control. Thus, issuing a mine permit to this company, given its history of violations, is highly controversial.”

Coal Not the Future
Near the end of her letter, Curry offers, “The effects of surface coal mining on the quality of the human environment are unquestionably controversial due to the permanent and irreversible effects on the environment, the harm to human health, property damage, risk of flooding, and other factors. This mine in particular is controversial because in addition to the presence of endangered species on site, a church and a Head Start are downstream from the mine site.”

In addition to the remarks in her letter, Curry shared, “I visited with some of the families that live on the creek below the proposed Big Creek mine and I saw the Head Start center that would be at risk from flooding and pollution. People showed me their foundations and roofs that have been cracked from mine blasting and their wells that they can no longer use because the water has been contaminated. I think the people in the rest of the country don’t realize that U.S. citizens living in the coal fields do not have access to clean water. It is outrageous that here in the United States corporations are destroying people’s water and the people are so poor that they have no choice but to drink water that they know could make them and their families very sick.”

She concluded, “It is pretty obvious that blowing up mountains and dumping the waste into streams is bad for the economy, bad for public health, bad for endangered species, and bad for our children’s future; the science and economic studies are now available that unequivocally demonstrate the social, economic, environmental, and public health costs of surface coal mining. People need to stop defending the coal industry and realize that there are other paths forward economically, that there are other ways to keep the lights on, and that the billions of dollars the coal operators are amassing are never going to create a healthy economy for Appalachian communities. … There has never been a better time for people to unite and demand clean jobs, economic diversification, and a healthy environment.”

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

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