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Illegal Mountaintop Removal Permits Expand Destruction of Central Appalachia

Federal officials implementing new strategy to evade the law, allow extreme coal mining
September 22, 2005
Washington DC —

In the latest battle in the ongoing effort to stop the federal government's illegal permitting of mountaintop removal valley fills, three environmental groups will today file a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit for a large mountaintop removal mine located near an important national historic site.

"Mountaintop removal mining may more appropriately be called mountain and stream annihilation," said Janet Keating, Co-Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "The tops of mountains hundreds of feet deep are blown apart to get at coal seams. Coal companies then dump the waste rock and debris in adjacent stream valleys, smothering the stream and any associated life. Mountaintop removal converts a biologically rich mountain ecosystem to a biological moonscape."

Today's action was filed on behalf of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Coal River Mountain Watch by Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.

In July 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit, which allows thousands of tons of waste rock and debris from the Camp Branch Surface Mine to be dumped into nearby streams, permanently burying them. The Camp Branch Surface Mine will not only destroy nearly three miles of stream but will also impact the nationally important historic site of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, a symbol of coal miners' resistance to the tyranny of the coal industry.

The groups are challenging the Corps' decision to issue a permit to the Camp Branch Surface Mine without required safeguards for local streams and without first conducting a study of the environmental impacts of the huge mining complex, in violation of two federal laws. Previously, the Corps had been issuing rubber-stamp "general permits" for mountaintop removal mines, but in July 2004 a federal judge ordered the Corps to stop that method of permitting. The suit filed today is the first major challenge to the Corps' new permitting scheme.

"Mountaintop mining has already destroyed over 800 square miles of mountains – an area equal to a one quarter mile wide swath of destruction from New York to San Francisco. It has buried more than 1,200 miles of headwater streams and uprooted or destroyed untold numbers of generations-old communities in central Appalachia," said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "In issuing this permit the Army Corps of Engineers has inexplicably reasoned that the environmental damages caused by this mine and mountaintop removal coal mining across the region are insignificant."

"It's painfully obvious that the Corps is acting without regard to the law by ignoring the individual, let alone cumulative effects of valley fills on the natural resources and communities in the coalfields. The Corps isn't bothering to review and evaluate the destruction it is permitting," Rank continued.

Regina Hendrix, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Board Member, added, "The Corps is betraying the public trust by leaving a landscape that will not recover for hundreds of years. While no good reason exists to destroy any mountain, this mountain is of great significance to the people and history of West Virginia. The vast wastelands left by mountaintop removal mining not only robs us of our economic future but this mine also infringes on our past by impacting the Blair Mountain historic site," said Hendrix. "If preserved as a national historic landmark the Blair Mountain site can help revitalize the tourist economy and provide an economic future for the area long after the coal industry has gone."

Today's legal action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia challenges the Corps' decision to approve a permit that will destroy surrounding valleys, rivers and streams. The Clean Water Act requires the Corps of Engineers to ensure that permitted activities will not result in significant degradation of the environment. In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Corps of Engineers to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) whenever a project may have significant impacts. In this case the Corps has failed to do either.

"Mountaintop removal mining is a callous, irresponsible, egregious method of mining coal. It creates false prosperity - enriching the few at a great cost to large areas of Appalachian people and the environment," said Janice A. Nease, Executive Director of Coal River Mountain Watch. "Southern West Virginia has become an energy sacrifice zone in the nation's quest for cheap energy. This injustice cannot be allowed to continue. Coal River Mountain Watch has accepted the challenge of ending mountaintop removal mining. We hope that the rest of the nation will join us in meeting this challenge."

The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and several local citizen organizations strongly cautioned against issuing a permit that allows such a blanket destruction of the natural landscape. However, the Corps instead determined that, "the proposed project does not significantly affect the quality of the human environment and an environmental impact statement need not be prepared."

"It is unfortunate that citizens are forced to resort to litigation to force the Bush administration to enforce environmental protection laws passed by Congress more than thirty-five years ago. Lax enforcement of these crucial laws, if allowed to continue, will not only destroy the region's forests, streams and mountains, but also its economic future," said Keating of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

A copy of the Camp Branch Surface Mine permit challenge lawsuit is available here (2.2 Mb file).

For additional background information, please contact:
Joe Lovett, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment (304) 645-9006
Margaret Janes, Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment (304) 897-6048 Steve Roady/Jennifer Chavez, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500

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Contacts

Regina Hendrix OVEC board member, 304-343-5211
Janet Keating, Co-Director, OVEC, 304-522-0246
Cindy Rank, WVHC, 304-924-5802
Janice A. Nease, Coal River Mountain Watch (304) 854-2182

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