A coalition of environmental groups will move today to support a Clean Water Act enforcement action by the federal government against Massey Energy Company. Last month, the government filed suit against Massey, stating that the coal company committed thousands of violations of federal environmental law during the past several years, a move that could result in billions of dollars in fines for the scofflaw company, potentially the largest such fine in Clean Water Act history.
Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment are representing the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Coal River Mountain Watch in federal court asking to join the enforcement action as citizen intervenors in the case.
"Unlike the Corps of Engineers, the EPA is finally doing the right thing by enforcing the Clean Water Act and holding Massey accountable for the environmental degradation their operations have wrought in Appalachia," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. "Protecting water quality is important, and the government should not allow coal companies and other industrial polluters to run roughshod over the law."
These groups recently won a dramatic decision in a separate case challenging four mountaintop removal mining permits illegally approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A federal judge found that the corps had violated the Clean Water Act by issuing the permits, which would have allowed thousands of tons of waste rock and debris to permanently bury headwaters and streams in West Virginia.
"It seems ironic that on one hand, the EPA is taking action to require this mining company to comply with the Clean Water Act, while on the other hand, the Corps of Engineers is permitting mining practices that result in complete stream destruction," said Cindy Rank, longtime member and chair of the mining committee at West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "It sure would be nice if the corps followed suit and actually protected our streams instead of allowing them to be permanently destroyed."
On May 12, EPA filed a civil suit against Massey, alleging the coal company had illegally dumped pollution into waters in West Virginia and Kentucky over 4,600 times over the past six years. This disregard for clean water protections -- about 69,000 days of Clean Water Act violations -- carries up to $2.4 billion in fines. The environmental groups are intervening to support enforcement of Massey's obligations under the Clean Water Act to protect streams and drinking water supplies in the communities where it operates.
"The government has documented over 69,000 days of Clean Water Act violations by Massey," said Vernon Haltom, with Coal River Mountain Watch. "It's as if this company has been breaking the law every single day since 1818. Back then, the U.S. flag had only 20 stars and Mary Shelley just published Frankenstein."
"Massey seems to be operating in the dark ages, leaving behind a legacy of polluted water, environmental destruction, and a disregard for the law. None of this is good for the future economy of West Virginia," said Dianne Bady, with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, WV.
Massey Energy is one of the largest coal mining companies in the world, and has a long history of environmental destruction. The company, through various subsidiaries, operates dozens of mountaintop removal and other large-scale surface mines in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal mining is one of the most environmentally destructive practices in the United States. Already more than 1,200 miles of streams have been buried or otherwise impacted and 500,000 acres of mountains have been flattened.
"The Corps of Engineers could certainly follow the lead of the EPA and begin protecting our streams rather than permitting their destruction," said Joe Lovett, attorney for the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment.
All of the Army Corps of Engineers permits successfully challenged by the groups in the separate litigation were for mines owned and operated by Massey subsidiaries.
Jennifer Chavez, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Joe Lovett, Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, (304) 645-9066
Dianne Bady, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, (304) 522-0246, ext. 9
Vernon Haltom, Coal River Mountain Watch, (304) 854-2182
Cindy Rank, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, (304) 924-5802
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.