Environmentalists Say Feds Fail to Protect Crayfish From Coal Mining

The threatened Big Sandy crayfish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

(CN) – Political appointees in President Donald Trump’s Interior Department have weakened protections for Appalachia’s endangered crayfish to benefit the coal mining industry, environmentalists claim in a federal lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Interior Department on Wednesday, arguing the Trump administration has allowed former coal lobbyists in the department to interfere in critical habitat decisions that are supposed to be based purely on science.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of West Virginia, claims “political appointees” in the department rejected guidance on crayfish projections developed by its own regional office and chose to instead adopt recommendations by West Virginia’s environmental protection agency, which the plaintiffs say is heavily influenced by the coal industry.

“Trump appointees have enabled a rubber-stamp system allowing mountains to be blown up and streams to be polluted without protection for endangered species or the human communities of Appalachia,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center.

Two species of crayfish – the Guyandotte River crayfish and Big Sandy crayfish – were listed as endangered in 2016 during the Obama administration.

In June 2017, the Interior Department issued a new directive that allowed mining firms to avoid drafting protection plans for projects within 500 feet of a known crayfish stream unless a company survey found a crayfish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The directive was based on guidance set by West Virginia and a 1996 biological opinion on surface coal mining which the plaintiffs say does not comply with the Endangered Species Act because full adherence with its terms would jeopardize listed species and harm critical habitats.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife developed its own guidance in July 2017 requiring protection plans for all projects in areas that could impact the endangered crayfish habitat but rescinded that guidance in March 2018. It was replaced by one closely resembling West Virginia’s more lax policy and endorsed by the Interior Department’s political appointees, according to the lawsuit.

“The regional office was forced to abandon the service’s 2017 guidance and adopted the 2018 guidance following pressure from political appointees within the Interior Department,” the complaint states. “These political appointees in the Interior Department were, in turn, lobbied by mining companies and others, including mining regulators in West Virginia, to adopt weaker guidelines.”

Because those decisions resulted from pressure from political appointees, the plaintiffs argue they were not based on the “best available science” as required under the Endangered Species Act.

The plaintiffs seek a court order invalidating the 1996 biological opinion on surface coal mining and requiring the Interior Department develop a plan to protect endangered crayfish from the impacts of coal mining.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

The plaintiffs are represented by Jared Margolis of Center for Biological Diversity in Eugene, Oregon, and Benjamin Luckett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

An Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

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