Groups assert that state attorney general Patrick Morrisey seeks to invalidate regulations that protect the health and well-being of West Virginia’s residents
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Kanawha State Forest Coalition, the Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition and Keepers of the Mountains Foundation have moved to intervene in an action previously filed by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and attorneys general from 23 other states. Their actions seek to delay and ultimately invalidate the Clean Power Plan adopted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Clean Power Plan is designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Under the plan, each state is required to develop a plan on how it is intends to achieve the emission reductions. Under West Virginia law, the governor, with the help of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), will develop this “State Implementation Plan” and it will be reviewed by the West Virginia legislature before it is submitted to the EPA.
The groups assert that Morrisey seeks to invalidate the regulations that carry out the Clean Power Plan in hopes of preventing the regulations from going into effect while the case is pending in court. They also assert that while he claims to be speaking for all West Virginians, he is not.
“We feel compelled to intervene so that the court will have the benefit of viewpoints other than that of Mr. Morrisey, a viewpoint not shared by all West Virginians,” said Cynthia D. Ellis, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “This case is about whether we want to live in the present and prepare for the future or cling to the past. Coal has been our main source of electricity for a century. Mr. Morrisey wants to go back to that past, a past that has made West Virginians sick and contributed to climate change. We want to move forward to a future where there is more balance in meeting our energy needs.”
The Motion to Intervene points out that in “literally dozens of recent peer-reviewed studies, diligent medical researchers have documented the fact that particulate matter — whether emitted from electric utility plants directly, or indirectly from the mountaintop removal mining projects from which those utilities obtain their fuel supply — results in statistically significant increases of birth defects, decreased birth weights, diminished educational attainment, increased cancer, pulmonary and cardiac disease, and very substantially decreased life expectancy.”
“This is about who speaks for West Virginia and for West Virginians,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Mr. Morrisey presumes to speak for the state and for all of us. His opinion may be that there is a war on coal and that all West Virginians should resist. This is not true. Climate change is a serious problem and we all have to do our part in addressing it.”
Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch , added, “The Clean Power Plan is far from perfect, and we may disagree with what West Virginia ultimately proposes as a plan to reduce emissions. But scrapping the Clean Power Plan entirely and betting West Virginia’s health and economic future on the miraculous resurgence of a polluting finite resource is not a solution.”
The case is filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. West Virginia groups are being represented by William DePaulo, an attorney based in Lewisburg, W.Va.
Unchecked mountaintop removal coal mining continues to harm communities, endangered species in Appalachia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Center for Biological Diversity, Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for their failure to protect threatened northern long-eared bats at two proposed mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia. The mines will clear more than 1,000 acres of hardwood forest that are home to the rare bat, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act in April. The agencies have not put any specific measures in place to protect the bats from the mining activities, as required by law.
“The failure to protect these bats is the latest example of coal companies getting a free pass in Appalachia when it comes to complying with the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the health of people and the environment,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “The wink-and-a-nod compliance with the law is having devastating effects on wildlife and human communities in Appalachia.”
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the northern long-eared bat in 2010. The species has declined by 96 percent in its core range due to a lethal disease called white-nose syndrome. Because of the drastic impact of this disease, the bat is extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction.
The bat is found at both Republic Energy’s proposed Long Ridge mine on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, which will clear 664 acres of forest, and Jim Justice’s Big Creek mine in McDowell County, which will destroy 468 acres of forest. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and Fish and Wildlife Service are required to ensure that mining does not jeopardize the survival of the bats.
“Federal agencies need to do a better job of protecting both the northern long-eared bat and the people who live around these mines,” said Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Mountaintop removal is destroying wildlife and human communities in Appalachia and it is time for that to end.”
“The lack of effective protections for bats and other endangered species mirrors the lack of protection for Appalachian residents from surface mining impacts,” said Dianne Bady, founder and project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
To try to address impacts to endangered species from surface mining, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, resulting in a “biological opinion” that established very minimal requirements that must be met. According to today’s legal notice, the two mines in question have not established specific measures to protect northern long-eared bats as is required by that biological opinion. The groups also put the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on notice that its continued reliance on the 1996 document to avoid impacts to imperiled species is illegal. The outdated biological opinion fails to ensure the survival of the northern long-eared bat and many other species that have required the Endangered Species Act’s protection since 1996 and, that like the bat, are being affected by surface coal mining.
“Today’s notice is another example of how critical it is to have increased protections in Appalachia from surface mining,” said Liz Wiles with the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Federal agencies need to revamp protections for endangered species when it comes to surface mining, which will benefit both wildlife and people.”
Much new scientific information has been published recently documenting the devastating effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia on wildlife and people. Mining has now been linked to declines in birds, fish, salamanders, crawdads, insects and freshwater mussels. Mining threatens nearby communities with air and water pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have now linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects.
The proposed Big Creek mine is a case in point. In addition to destroying nearly 500 acres of native hardwood forest used by the bat, it is directly above a church and upstream of a Head Start center. It will also destroy more than five miles of streams, threatening another species that has been proposed for protection, the Big Sandy crayfish. More than one million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Coal River Mountain Watch is a West Virginia nonprofit organization that works to stop the destruction of communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life of residents, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The group is working to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE).
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is national organization dedicated to the improvement of the environment and communities through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, strategic litigation and media outreach.
Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the country with more than 2.4 million members and supporters. Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environments.”
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection accused of ‘permitting one disaster after another’
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On March 16, a day before seven environmental groups announced their intention to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop removal and other destructive surface coal mining, approximately 200 people rallied in front of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) building to demand that it stop issuing permits for mountaintop removal.
Speakers moved beyond the customary concerns about environmental impacts and alluded to several studies that show that the strip-mining practice causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses from clouds of fine blasting dust.
According to one study published on the United States Institute of Health webpage, “Appalachian mountaintop mining particulate matter induces neoplastic transformation of human bronchial epithelial cells and promotes tumor formation.” Additionally, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign website offers a brief video about a child needing breathing treatments because of exposure to dust clouds from a nearby mountaintop removal site. Another page, on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website, provides information garnered from more than two dozen studies about the illnesses and deaths caused by mountaintop removal.
Among those present or speaking at “The People’s Foot” rally were several environmental leaders, Mountain State residents, at least two groups of college students visiting West Virginia on immersion trips, a singer from Kentucky, a Charleston singer and poet, and a 10-year-old girl.
Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch boomed, “DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has finally conceded that these health studies need to be considered, but he says his agency does not have the expertise to do so. If his agency does not understand the health impacts of the actions that they permit, then they have no business issuing more mountaintop removal permits. Randy Huffman has the authority, the mission and the moral obligation to protect people’s health, so he should issue no more mountaintop removal permits until he understands the consequences.”
Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition added, “Mountaintop removal is killing the people I love, and my government is allowing it. The West Virginia DEP is permitting one disaster after another, and the people of West Virginia are paying for these disasters.”
Bo Webb, who organized the rally, called for the passage of federal legislation – HR 912, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. “Randy Huffman could refuse to issue another mountaintop removal permit based on the health impacts, but he would lose his job. Our state government will make sure that the permits continue to flow.”
Tom Breiding with Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute brought a group of students to the rally and was taking them to the West Virginia Coal Association office the next day. “We provide a comprehensive overview of what is happening in West Virginia,” said Breiding.
Also escorting a student group was Wess Harris. A sociologist by training, Harris is also a farmer, educator, and self-described progressive activist living in central West Virginia. He is also a retired underground miner who was a union organizer. He stressed that he seeks to provide the students he brings in with a balanced understanding of West Virginia. “I want them to learn what we are hearing today, but I also want them to respect coal miners. It is important that they understand that we’re not bad people.” He added, about the students, “I hope they come up with a solution.”
Tonya Adkins, a native West Virginian now living in Kentucky, sang a song she wrote based on Revelation 11:18. The lyrics include the line, “What will they say on the judgment day when God destroys those who destroyed the earth?” Commenting upon her song, she shared, “A thread that runs through this is the poisoning of our water.” Revelation 11:18 reads, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants, the prophets, and the holy ones and those who fear your name, the small and the great alike, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (New American Bible, Revised Edition).
The 10-year-old, Ukiah Cordell of Charleston, said, “I used to love hiking up a mountain, letting the cool breeze blow away my negative thoughts. I still do. But now, it is not always so nice.” She concluded with a proclamation of hope, saying, “Mountaintop removal started here and we are going to end it here.”
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Groups assert that West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection fails to protect people and the environment
Special to the Appalachian Chronicle
CHARLESTON. W.Va. – Seven local, regional and national groups filed a formal notice on March 17 of intent to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop removal and other destructive surface coal mining – a state program that has, for decades, allowed the coal industry to ravage the environment, putting people at risk and destroy local communities, assert the groups.
The groups on the notice are the Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club.
According to the groups, the state’s chronically poor oversight has included a persistent failure to conduct inspections meant to protect people and the environment from coal companies that operate outside the law. They claim that out-of-control mountaintop removal coal mining is linked to epidemics of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects in affected communities. West Virginia has also failed to undertake required assessments to ensure lakes, rivers and drinking-water wells aren’t harmed by mountaintop removal mining and other destructive surface coal mining practices.
“Citizens’ groups have been forced to demand federal enforcement because the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has failed to do its job,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Our communities and health suffer because the state lets the mining industry get away with polluting at will.”
In June 2013, 18 organizations joined a legal petition to the Office of Surface Mining detailing the extensive mining oversight failures of West Virginia’s DEP. The federal agency has acknowledged that five of the claims have merit, but has failed to take action toward promulgating a federal program. Under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, it is required to step in when a state fails to implement, enforce or maintain its program for overseeing surface mining.
“The situation here could not be more urgent,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Under West Virginia’s program, we’ve seen once vibrant streams die, devastating floods, and loved ones exposed to toxic blasting dust take ill. Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed communities and threatens to destroy more. We need OSM to take action now.”
The notice of intent details the state’s failure to complete mandatory inspections evaluating whether a mining operation is complying with the law.
“West Virginia’s watchdog on mountaintop removal coal mining is utterly failing to do its job. During one three month stretch in 2014, the state failed to conduct 171 required inspections,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These chronic failures translate into serious harm on the ground, because without inspections, the people who live in the state have to rely on the mining industry to voluntarily report things like water-quality violations that threaten public health.”