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Environmental groups challenging mountaintop removal mine plans

Oct. 23, 2008 @ 03:14 PM

HUNTINGTON —  A coalition of local and national environmental groups are challenging plans for two mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia that would pollute waters, destroy forested mountains, and harm the quality of life for local communities. Proposed by the Fola Coal Company, the mines threaten large areas of Nicholas and Clay counties.

 Together, the two mines would bury more than five miles of streams in the Sycamore Run, Ike Fork, and Lilly Fork watersheds of Buffalo Creek. By the Army Corps of Engineers’ (“the Corps”) own estimates, two-thirds of the streams in the Lilly Fork watershed and 20 percent of the streams in the Buffalo Creek watershed have already been harmed by mining activities in the past.

 "Either the Corps can't add two and two, or doesn't know what 'cumulative impacts' means, or something really rotten is going on,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Huntington-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Because, to issue these permits, the Corps had to ignore its own findings on the counties' already-impacted waterways."

 The mines would also destroy 903 acres of some of the most biologically diverse streams and forests in the country.

In addition to concern over the environmental impacts of the mines, the coalition is challenging the Corps’ failure to allow the public to participate in the permitting process.

"It's ironic that citizens are often criticized for taking their complaints to the news media and to the streets, while often, as in this case, we are cut out of the administrative and permitting process by the agencies,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “The laws insist that the public be informed and active participants in the permitting process and yet too often we have to appeal to the courts to make those rights and responsibilities accessible to us."

 Across Appalachia, mining companies destroy mountains to reach the underlying coal and then dump the resulting millions of tons of debris into the valleys below. This mountaintop removal mining has damaged or destroyed approximately 1,200 miles of streams, destroyed forests on some 300 square miles of land, disrupted drinking water supplies, flooded communities, and destroyed wildlife habitat.

 “Mountaintop removal coal mining is an absolute catastrophe, one that happens here in our backyard every day,” said Jim Sconyers, chair of the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Our members have seen it up close; they’re appalled, and determined that it must stop.”

 Data from mountaintop removal mine permits show that this destructive form of mining will only provide jobs and energy for another few years. When not irresponsibly strip mined, West Virginia’s mountains are home to some of the country’s best wind power potential, an energy source that will provide power and long-term jobs for the foreseeable future.

 "This destructive mine would provide only temporary jobs, while permanently destroying any real, sustainable economic benefit from the mountain and water resources," said Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "Destroying all other resources for the sake of coal is a step backward when our state needs to move forward with renewable energy projects that can bring about sustainable economic development."

 The coalition, including Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, is represented in this challenge by Joe Lovett at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Jim Hecker at Public Justice. The Fola Coal Company is a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy Inc. The coalition appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia today to ask the court for a preliminary injunction after the Army Corps of Engineers issued permits for the mines in violation of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.