Lovers of outdoor recreation and stunning scenery can now permanently enjoy expanded public access to the popular Gauley River. The 665 acres in Gauley River National Recreation Area acquired by West Virginia Land Trust this spring includes a gorge once intended for development. According to Brent Bailey, executive director of the land trust, “The importance of this land to public recreation can’t be overstated.” Nearly 60,000 whitewater rafters visit the river each fall.
Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’
By Molly Moore
Just two miles away from busy Interstate 77, visitors to West Virginia’s Camp Creek State Park trade the hum of passing traffic for birdsong and the rushing chatter of waterfalls.
“As soon as you come through the mountains and to the park, you enter a very vast, remote part of the country here, just a beautiful, vast forest with lots of things to do,” says Park Superintendent Frank Ratcliffe.
Convenient access to the interstate makes the park a handy stopover for travelers, and the broad range of recreational options marks it as a destination in its own right. The park is open year-round, and visitors can hike, fish, hunt, splash in the creek or bring their horses and mountain bikes. Of the roughly 36 miles of trails, about six miles are for hiking only, while the others are also open to equestrian and bike use.
The 5,500-acre Camp Creek State Forest abuts the 500-acre state park, giving the park’s trail system more room to roam and providing access to public hunting areas. The park and forest also include two creeks, where anglers can find ample trout in winter and early spring, and might even catch enough trout in midsummer for a hearty dinner.
The camping facilities also reflect the park’s broad appeal. Accommodations range from a modern campground outfitted with wi-fi to rustic camping, a horse-friendly campground and a new backcountry site. The latter two are the only horse and backcountry camping areas in the West Virginia state park system.
Double C Campground, the creekside camping area shared by hooved explorers and their riders, provides access to 25 miles of horse trails and cements Camp Creek’s place as an equestrian jewel.
Similarly, Ratcliffe hopes to draw more mountain bikers to the park with a new backcountry campsite. The site is tucked near the center of the park’s trail system, three miles from the main office parking area along a new path, Almost Heaven Road and Trail, named for its scenic views of the Allegheny mountain range. From here, mountain bikers of all levels can devise their own routes.
For those who prefer a refreshing mountain stream, Campbell Waterfalls and Mash Fork Waterfalls are popular wading areas and are both a short jaunt along the Turkey Loop Road and Trail from the park’s two main campgrounds.
Mash Fork Magic
Hikers looking for a more secluded journey to Mash Fork Waterfalls can link to hiking-only footpaths from the multi-use paths marked “road and trail.” One invigorating foray combines Farley Ridge Road and Trail with the Mash Fork Trail for a 1.6 mile loop that’s more challenging than its mileage suggests.
From the main office parking area, hikers follow the Farley Ridge Road and Trail as it climbs uphill — sometimes steadily, sometimes abruptly. The trail’s shade eases the strain of elevation gain, and the surrounding forest sports an array of rainbow-hued mushrooms and seasonal wildflowers. Look for trillium and columbine in spring, admire rhododendron blossoms around the 4th of July, find bright red cardinal flowers along the creek in late summer, and keep an eye out for asters in fall.
After .6 miles on Farley Ridge, the trail meets the hiking-only Mash Fork Trail. The intersection evokes Robert Frost’s reference to “the path less traveled,” with the narrow dirt path to the left breaking off from the wide gravel one.
On this seemingly less-traveled path, the Mash Fork Trail descends a series of switchbacks for 1.1 miles, gradually becoming steeper until it reaches the waterfall. Those who continue on Farley Ridge Road and Trail will soon reach the namesake ridge, which the path follows for about two relatively level miles before intersecting Almost Heaven Road and Trail.
Hikers who trek to the falls will be greeted with the sight of Mash Fork Creek tumbling off a broad rock ledge. The falls form a captivating cascade when the water level is high and spill across the mossy stone in several smaller fountains when the stream is shallow. Below, a wide pool provides an opportunity to dip trail-weary feet.
From the waterfall, return to the parking area without stepping on asphalt by turning left on a short section of Turkey Loop Road and Trail and taking another left on a brief section of the horse bypass trail.
This Mash Fork loop offers a taste of the possibilities at Camp Creek State Park and Forest, but visitors needn’t stop at the parking area — there are many more miles to discover.
By Kimber Ray
For many in West Virginia whose water was contaminated by Freedom Industries this past January, the $11,000 fine issued against the company by federal officials in July demonstrated the failure of state and federal officials to demand corporate accountability.
In a Charleston, W. Va., prison, inmates are reporting that they had to choose between dehydration and drinking the contaminated tap water. Although the jail initially reported that inmates were supplied eight bottles of water a day, later investigation revealed that inmates sometimes had as little as a single bottle of water each day.
At press time, no action has been taken against jail officials.
Also in July, evidence emerged that the spill may have caused a greater health impact than initially indicated. Research funded by the National Science Foundation found that MCHM — the primary chemical that contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians — is significantly more toxic to aquatic life than the manufacturer had reported. The implications for human health are still being evaluated.
Cleanup of the Freedom Industries site is underway, and the public had a deadline of Aug. 1 to file claims against the company.
By Brian Sewell
A mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia is causing significant backlash because of its proximity to a cherished state forest and residential areas.
Located along the eastern boundary of Kanawha State Forest in Kanawha County and a few miles from downtown Charleston, the 414-acre KD Mine No. 2 received approval from regulators in May. But the Kanawha Forest Coalition, a group of residents opposing the mine, is pressuring the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to rescind the permit.
In early July, nearly 200 residents gathered to discuss ways to block the mine. The group started a petition to Gov. Tomblin, and also plans to appeal the permit before the West Virginia Surface Mining Board of Review in August.
As it stands, the permit allows Florida-based Keystone Industries to mine within 1,500 feet of some homes, which the coalition contends will lower property values, increase the risk of flooding and put forest visitors at risk from dust and flyrock from blasting. But DEP official Harold Ward told reporters that the permit would not have been approved if his agency was not confident in the proposed mining and reclamation processes. According to the DEP, mining company personnel will check at-risk areas before blasting to make sure no hikers are in danger — a measure opponents say is far from foolproof.
Mining has not yet begun, but DEP has already issued two violations to Keystone for not properly constructing ditches required before the trees on the site are clearcut. The agency also received a formal complaint from the Kanawha Forest Coalition and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition about the violations.
If spending $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is paying your debts.
On July 25, as opponents of mountaintop removal celebrated an order that halted three companies’ surface mining operations in Tennessee, New Orleans Saints fans flocked to the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the NFL football team began training camp at a brand new $30 million facility.
At the center of both stories is Jim Justice, a billionaire West Virginia native who in recent years cut his coal losses by investing heavily in resort properties like the Greenbrier.
The Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment shared the news that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued 39 cessation orders against National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining, each owned by Justice, for failing to report water monitoring data and meet mine reclamation requirements.
In fact, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations, with unpaid penalties of about $2 million.
“I guess I just screwed up,” Justice said to the Roanoke Times in July about his subsidiaries’ transgressions. “I mean, we’re not a public company … The majority of this is all paperwork, and I’m cleaning it up.”
Justice is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. Forbes magazine puts him at number 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans and estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.
In some circles, he is revered for rescuing West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort from bankruptcy in 2009. And even as violations against Justice-owned operations pile up, West Virginia’s lone billionaire is helping his state through troubled times.
“Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice’s companies’ practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like,” a July editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail postured in guarded praise. “Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state’s economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it.”
Some folks in Kentucky feel differently, and understandably so — nearly half of the 266 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in that state’s eastern counties.
Along with violations for failing to pay fines or breaking promises after previous enforcement actions, the charges in Kentucky stem from companies failing to submit water monitoring reports and failing to meet reclamation requirements. The problem has gotten so bad that some states are considering bond forfeiture, a last resort that could push the costs of proper reclamation off on the communities Justice’s companies have already put in harm’s way.
It’s not the first time his companies’ poor regulatory records have hurt their ability to do business. Outstanding violations in Virginia led to a massive victory for opponents of mountaintop removal last year when the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a permit for Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. to strip-mine Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.
But the recent cessation order in Tennessee represents the largest action to date taken against Justice’s companies. Unlike all the other states where his operations face violations and fines, Tennessee’s mining regulatory program is handled by the federal government.
Before the cessation orders were issued, the federal Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County, Tenn., to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up.
“You’d think a coal billionaire could hire firms that can plant a tree the right way around. Sadly, Premium Coal’s reasoning for not meeting permit requirements was simply that,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bonnie Swinford in a press release. “Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate reclamation of strip-mined land in our state — and upside-down trees don’t cut it.”
Add it all up, and it’s no wonder the Southwest Virgnia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to call on the mogul to use his power to diversify Appalachia’s economy and put an end to mountaintop removal. In early July, SAMS members marched outside the Greenbrier and the towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va., holding signs with messages such as “You got rich, we got sick,” “Employ local people in reclamation,” and “Hey Jim Justice, be a good neighbor to ALL of Appalachia.”
According to the Justice to Justice website, many tourists and even local residents had no idea that the Greenbrier patriarch’s fortune had been built in part “on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.”
Courting the Saints
Sadly, media coverage of Justice’s latest major investment has obscured everything mentioned so far in this post. A USA Today story about the new facility built for the New Orleans Saints praised a genial, sports-loving Justice, calling him a “refreshingly grounded billionaire.” Justice was proud to share the amount he spent to see the Saints come to the Greenbrier.
“This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money,” Justice told USA Today. “The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”
The facility, which has variously been described as “posh,” “lavish,” and “state-of-the-art,” was built in about 100 days. You can watch the video at right from the Charleston Daily Mail’s YouTube account for a look inside.
“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice told reporters gathered in the locker room. “This is, gosh, I’m trying to think, a little over 90 days in the doing, and with a whole lot of earth-moving, it had to be done before that.”
Yes, it is unbelievable, and exceedingly hard to not just conclude that Justice sees himself as being above the law. If dropping $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is abiding by surface mining laws and properly reclaiming mines — trees planted root-side down and all.
Justice says the demands of his critics, who he calls “anti-mining activists,” are unrealistic. But considering the circumstances, a regional movement calling on his companies to clean up their mess, pay off their debts and stop poisoning water is not only realistic, it’s unavoidable. Justice practically created it. To do right by Appalachia, he should meet those demands and then some. And he could start by responding to the open letter and request for a meeting the Justice to Justice campaign sent him months ago.
Back at the Greenbrier, likely in a dining room every bit as lavish as the new sports complex, Saints’ Coach Sean Payton and Justice had dinner together the night before training camp started. At one point, according to USA Today, Payton told Justice, “You exceeded expectations.”
Given the same chance, someone from Central Appalachia expecting justice — whether an out-of-work miner, a contractor waiting to be paid, a fed up environmental regulator or a mother concerned about the poorly reclaimed mine looming over her community — might all say the opposite: “Not even close.”
Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Coal River Mountain Watch recently signed on to Justice to Justice campaign. Learn more here and by liking the campaign’s Facebook page.
In a major victory for Appalachia and clean water advocates, a federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Read the court’s decision here.
More on today’s decision and what it means for Appalachia.
The three-judge panel rejected a 2012 ruling that the EPA overstepped its authority by pursuing an enhanced permitting process for certain mountaintop removal proposals. Today’s ruling sends the lawsuit back to U.S. District Court.
A statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons:
“The court’s ruling today is as clear as the science indicting mountaintop removal coal mining, and it affirms what advocates working to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams have been saying for years.
“Overwhelming evidence of the toll mountaintop removal takes on water quality, wildlife and human health continues to emerge. Still, mountaintop removal permits are being approved with disregard for the basic science behind EPA’s conductivity guidance. The ruling should be a signal to states and the EPA to begin truly following that science. And it’s common sense that the agency coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the science is applied throughout the permitting process.”
This month, yet another study pointing to the destructive impact mountaintop removal was released, adding to the body of science state and federal agencies should apply to the permitting process.
Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.
USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia
A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.
That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:
“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”
The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.
But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.
Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).
This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.
One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.
Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:
In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.
Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.
Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.
It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.
The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.
This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.
Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.
Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:
“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”
Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.
The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.
Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.
As a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS, Chris Gang has been helping citizens who were impacted by the January chemical spill that poisoned the tap water for 300,000 people. As he and others are just recently learning, some of those citizens were the inmates at South Central Regional Jail.
“What started as a response to the water crisis has grown into a larger effort shedding light onto ongoing issues like denial of health care, inadequate food, and arbitrary disciplinary measures at South Central Regional Jail and other West Virginia prisons,” tells Chris Gang a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS. The crisis he’s referring to is the mistreatment of inmates during the MCHM chemical spill at the prison located in Charleston, WV.
The public health and safety crisis brought on by the chemical and coal industry has been going on for decades, as coal-impacted communities in Appalachia know full well. The MCHM spill into the Elk River brought this reality into the living rooms and conversations of the rest of America. Since February, inmates from the prison in Charleston have been communicating with Chris and other volunteers with WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS Campaign. As their stories unfold, it’s becoming apparent that the jail staff gave inmates few or zero alternatives to drinking, cooking, and bathing with the contaminated water.
This abuse of basic human rights to clean water and personal safety are egregious and must be amended. The purpose of this story-sharing and grassroots campaign is to increase public awareness of the living conditions in West Virginia jails and to compel government agencies to respond to these abuses by the jail staff and administration.
These stories need to be shared beyond our circles to ensure the health and safety of these inmates is restored – please take a minute to sign this petition in support of:
You can read the full transcripts of these letters and the report “Negligence and Malice: A Preliminary Report on the Water Crisis at SCRJ” on the Stories from South Central, WV website. Here are a few excerpts exposing the abusive treatment by jail staff.
“You can let them know that most of us are drinking as little water as possible and quite a few of us are sick from it and would greatly appreciate it if the jail were to flush the lines again – change the filters and provide us with bottled water. Why are the people in Charleston given free bottled water and we are not – I just thought about that. Just because we are convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that we rate different health standards than the general public.” – Anonymous 4/2/14
“Also, this jail’s water system is an in-house recycled water system, meaning all of the water whether from sinks, toilets, showers, drinking fountains, etc. is recycled over and over here to cut down water cost. If the proper steps weren’t taken, filters changed, system flushes, etc. are we still using contaminated water? Potentially more contaminated than the public’s? And have there been any reports of joint problems? I’m still being prescribed ‘allergy meds’ for headaches, sneezing, chest cold like symptoms, respiratory problems brought on by ‘allergies!’ What a joke!” – Ray Legg 3/24/14
Already this work has proven that the jail administrators had lied to the media about how they handled the water crisis in the jail.
This will be an ongoing struggle and the volunteers with the Stories from South Central project need your help. For any of these volunteering options, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 681 214 0884 to learn more:
If I were a congressman, I think my favorite thing to do would be to have lobbyists buy me expensive lunches. My second favorite thing would be to introduce unreasonable legislation that had zero chance of ever passing. You see, our elected reps get to stand up for whatever industry they prefer, or whichever issue is closest to their heart. This Congress has only passed about 1% of the bills that have been introduced, so if a bill fails, it’s no big deal.
For example, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) prefers to introduce bills dealing with issues he cares a lot about. And Rahall really, really wants coal companies to be allowed to dump their mountaintop removal waste into West Virginia’s streams. See, the Environmental Protection Agency has been issuing fewer permits for valley fills, and without those, it’s harder for mountaintop removal mines to span thousands of acres.
What’s worse, in Rahall’s eyes, is that the EPA once used its power afforded by the Clean Water Act to veto the permit for Spruce mine, a planned 2,200-acre mine in West Virginia. The plan was to bury six miles of high quality streams with more than 100 million cubic yards of coal mine waste. But then the EPA came in and determined that the mine would pose an unacceptable risk to water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities. After years in court, the EPA’s veto authority has been upheld, and the mine has been stopped.
In response, Rahall just introduced the “Regulatory Certainty Act of 2014” to confront the EPA’s “increasing aggression against West Virginia coal mining,” and to check the agency’s “ideological zeal.” In more technical terms, the legislation would change the Clean Water Act to take away the EPA’s ability to veto a valley fill permit after an absurdly short 30-day window.
Rahall seems to believe that the EPA is running wild with these vetoes, destroying the U.S. economy in the process. But consider the following: the EPA has had veto power over 404 permits since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. In the past 42 years,it has used this veto power exactly 13 times. There are hundreds of permit applications filed with the EPA every year for purposes ranging from mining to road construction, and the agency has issued a veto less than once every three years. The Obama administration has actually only used its veto authority once. Once!
It doesn’t seem to matter to Rahall that the EPA’s veto authority is a rarely used tool designated for extreme cases. The very possibility that the EPA could stop the biggest, baddest, most destructive mines from plundering Appalachia is apparently too much for him to stomach.
So. instead of standing idly by, Rep. Nick Rahall is wielding his power as a veteran United States congressman by introducing a bill to strip the EPA of its preemptive and retroactive veto power under the Clean Water Act.
The result? Another sheet of paper in a stack of hopeless bills written for political points.
On Thursday, June 5, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that high levels of conductivity in water discharged from mountaintop removal mines are harmful to West Virginia streams.
The Sierra Club issued a press release that calls the ruling a “landmark decision” and quotes the district court’s decision that, “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. These West Virginia streams … were once thriving aquatic ecosystems.”
The ruling comes at a pivotal time for citizen action groups engaging in litigation under the Clean Water Act. The same day of the court’s ruling on conductivity, citizen groups including Appalachian Voices filed a suit in Virginia arguing that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company had failed to comply with a state-imposed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the South Fork Pound River.
The South Fork Pound TMDL stipulates the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS) the river can tolerate, while still protecting aquatic life. Mines that discharge into the South Fork Pound watershed are given waste load allocations (WLAs) for their contribution of TDS and TSS. Our case against Red River Coal argues that data from company water monitoring indicates that they have exceeded WLAs for the South Fork Pound River.
At a first glance, these two cases seem to be only distantly related, but with a closer look and some basic science, it becomes clear that they are actually incredibly similar.
Conductivity is the measurement of the ability of a material to conduct electricity. In the case of water, the more positive and negative ions in the water, the more conductive it becomes. TDS measures the concentrations of dissolved ions in the water, so the higher the TDS, the higher the water’s electrical conductivity.
When water has been discharged from a surface mine, it often runs through valley fills and other areas where heavy metals have been disturbed. Dr. Anthony Timpano of the Virginia Water Research Center authored a paper that explores the effects of high levels of TDS on aquatic life. Timpano states that streams impacted by coal pollution can often have a TDS greater than 2000 mg/L. A normal stream should have a TDS of less than 200 mg/L. Ions that typically contribute to high TDS levels include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate and sulfate. Sulfate has been shown to have deadly effects on aquatic life.
Another theme present in both of these cases is the lack of state oversight and enforcement for water pollution violations in coal-impacted communities. These lawsuits were filed by citizen groups that advocate for clean water in areas where industry is often favored over local communities. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy failed to hold Alex Energy, Elk Run Coal Company, and Red River Coal Company accountable. Instead, citizens have stepped up to the job.
Appalachian Voices’ Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance hits the nail on the head, saying, “Unfortunately, it takes lawsuits like this one to get the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”