Today, the groups asked the US district court hearing the case to require the Corps to rescind illegal permits for these three mines and enjoin the agency from allowing any further activities at these sites that violate the law and cause irreparable damage to vital water resources, and to the health and welfare of many West Virginians living downstream.
"Trying to get the Corps of Engineers to follow the law is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall: it is awfully hard to make it stick," said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "The Corps gives coal companies permits that are little more than a wink and a nod, and the coal companies waste little time before ripping out trees, choking off streams, and filling in valleys with mining waste."
According to the Bush administration's own estimates, mountaintop removal mining in the region has already destroyed over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 2,400 miles of streams will be permanently wiped out by 2013 if additional environmental restrictions are not enforced.
"The blame for this environmental destruction really rests upon the Corps of Engineers for its failure to follow the law," said Cindy Rank with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "The Corps is dodging its responsibility to scrutinize these permits that blatantly violate the Clean Water Act."
Today's move by the citizen groups is a significant step in the most recent of the legal battles over mountaintop removal and the Clean Water Act. The case began last fall when the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) and Coal River Mountain Watch, represented by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Earthjustice, filed litigation challenging permits for two huge mines: the Camp Branch surface mine in Logan County, and the Black Castle contour mine in Boone County. The groups also are challenging a third mine, Republic No. 2, in Kanawha County. The Corps acknowledged that the valley fills from these mines will permanently annihilate streams yet the agency still approved both permits, claiming that the resulting environmental impact will be insignificant. Today's legal action seeks to protect streams and valleys from further destruction until the court can determine whether the permits comply with the law.
"Time and again the Army Corps of Engineers has danced around the law when they approved these permits," said Janice Nease with Coal River Mountain Watch. "If we don't stop this soon, the Corps will continue to abuse the process and there will be nothing left of West Virginia to enjoy."
Dr. Margaret Palmer, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland and an expert on stream restoration and aquatic ecosystems, wrote in a declaration for the court that, "The mining activities and valley fills will fundamentally and permanently alter the hydrological and sediment regimes which are master variables controlling ecological functioning in impacted streams…Further, since watersheds act as a unit and a considerable amount of land in the watershed is to be cleared, the impacts are expected to extend far beyond the buried headwater streams."