KNOXVILLE, TN – Yesterday evening, a federal judge approved a settlement between two federal agencies and a coalition of environmental and community groups that will commit the agencies to comply with the Endangered Species Act at three Tennessee coal strip mines. The agreement resolves first-of-its-kind litigation brought by Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club against the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement will require OSM and the Service to fully consider the effects of pollution from mining operations on the endangered Cumberland darter and the threatened blackside dace. Those two freshwater fish species are found in the areas threatened by mining waste pollution from National Coal’s Zeb Mountain Mine, Davis Creek Energy’s Mine Area 5, and Middlesboro Mining’s Sterling & Strays mine.
“We’re very pleased that federal regulators will finally consider the impacts of destructive coal mining on federally protected freshwater fish species as required by the Endangered Species Act. We hope that this review will be extended to similarly-situated surface coal mining permit applications in the future,”said Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Our organizations will continue to monitor the permit application process and ensure that the agencies follow the law to protect Tennessee’s incredible native wildlife.”
“Extinction of endangered species is too high a price to pay for surface mining,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Although these permits should have never been allowed to go forward in the first place, we’re glad that OSM and the Service are finally living up to their responsibilities to ensure endangered and threatened species will be protected from harmful mining pollution.”
“From day one in our efforts to stop mining on Zeb Mountain, we have been concerned about the streams and the animals that live in them, and believed that science backed us up, “ said Campbell County resident and SOCM member Cathie Bird. “This settlement, to me, is more than about winning a case. It’s about affirming the rights of people and wildlife to clean water.”
“For too long regulators have been reluctant to consider the full costs to people and the environment of coal mining in Tennessee,” said TCWN Executive Director Renee Hoyos. “We have lost fish species and water quality has degraded to the point that very little can live in these streams. We are glad to have a resolution to this problem and look forward to working with OSM and US FWS on better permitting in the future. It will be a top priority for our organizations to monitor any future coal mining permit requests for compliance with all ESA rules and regulations.”
In their lawsuits, the groups asserted that high levels of water conductivity created by mining pollution put the future of the blackside dace and Cumberland darter at risk. Conductivity is a measure of the ability of fresh water to carry an electric current. The higher the conductivity level in Appalachian streams, the more pollutants are in the water and the greater the threat to certain species of aquatic life. Conductivity is measured in microSiemens per centimeter (µS/cm) with a safe level for the darter and dace being less than 240 µS/cm. Coal strip mining generates conductivity pollution far beyond the level deemed safe for the blackside dace and the Cumberland darter. Tests of the water downstream from the Zeb Mountain strip mine, for example, show conductivity ranging from 538 to 886 µS/cm – far outside safe limits for the fish.
Mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining have already caused a significant decrease in the dace and darter populations. Destructive strip mining clear-cuts timber and undergrowth, blasts open the earth, and destroys streams. In the process, this devastating practice poisons drinking water, lays waste to wildlife habitat, increases risk of flooding, and wipes out entire communities.
Defenders of Wildlife, SOCM, TCWN and Sierra Club were represented in this action by attorneys for Defenders of Wildlife and Tennessee Clean Water Action Network.