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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fish Threatened by Strip Mining May be Listed

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Kentucky arrow darter, imperiled by strip mining stream pollution, has been proposed for threatened species listing under the Endangered Species Act, with critical habitat. The proposed listing of the small fish as a threatened species allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to include a special exemption from prohibitions on harming or killing the fish under certain circumstances, the agency said. Such exemptions are not allowed under an endangered listing status.

The Section 4(d) exemptions under the ESA would allow activities, such as channel reconfiguration and restoration, bank stabilization, and bridge replacement or removals, that may result in "some minimal level of mortality" to the fish, but which are expected to have a net beneficial effect for the species, the agency said.

The listing and critical habitat proposals resulted from a settlement agreement between the USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and its allies, which mandates listing determinations for hundreds of species within a prescribed time frame. The fish was identified as a candidate species in 2010.

"The plight of the Kentucky arrow darter tells the story of the blatant sacrifice of creeks in eastern Kentucky to the coal industry," Tierra Curry, a CBD senior scientist, said. "Endangered Species Act protection will not only help the darter survive, but will also help protect the health of the people who have to live with polluted water and air from coal mining every single day."

The colorful fish was historically found in 74 streams in the upper Kentucky River drainage area of eastern Kentucky. It is no longer found in 49 percent of those streams, and only 23 of the darter's remaining populations are stable, the agency said. Half of the population losses occurred since the mid-1990s. Currently, the darter occupies 47 streams across 10 counties in Kentucky.

Threats to the fish include logging, oil and gas development, development, agriculture and inadequate sewage treatment, in addition to mountain top removal strip mining. All of these activities result in water quality degradation and pollution. "Within the upper Kentucky River drainage, coal mining has been the most significant historical source of these pollutants, and it continues to be practiced throughout the drainage," according to the action. Over 37 million tons of coal were produced in eastern Kentucky in 2014, and it is estimated there are 5.8 billion tons of recoverable reserves in the region, the agency said in the action. "Consequently, the potential remains for Kentucky arrow darters to continue to be adversely affected by water quality degradation associated with surface coal mining activities."

If the threatened species designation is finalized, coal mining could still occur in the arrow darter's watersheds if the proposed mining operations are in compliance with the ESA and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Mining companies would be required to develop a protection plan for the darter, including species-specific protective measures. The USFWS and the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources would work cooperatively to assist coal mining applicants in developing these measures, the agency said.

The agency is proposing 246 stream miles of critical habitat for the fish in the 10 counties where they are still found. The proposed habitat occupies land held by private parties and federal and state agencies. Kentucky landowners own the land under streams, but the water is under state jurisdiction, the agency said.

"I grew up on Troublesome Creek, where the Kentucky arrow darter is now nearly wiped out," the CBD's Tierra Curry said. "Thank goodness the Endangered Species Act is finally going to start protecting the precious wildlife of Appalachia.

"Written comments on the proposed listing and the critical habitat designation are due Dec. 7. Requests for public hearings are due by Nov. 23.

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