HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (CN) – West Virginia’s Fola Coal Company is once again feeling the heat as the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are seeking an injunction stopping it from polluting a nearby river.
The environmental groups – the Ohio Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Sierra Club – claim the coal-mining company is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging large amounts of pollutants from its mountaintop removal coal mines into tributaries of the Elk River, which is itself a tributary of Kanawha River.
Fola has been the target of numerous civil cases regarding its alleged breaches of the Clean Water Act, including a case in which the company was found guilty in 2015 of water-pollution violations and held liable for the damages.
Two mountaintop removal coal mines, operated in Nicholas and Clay Counties, are the focus of Wednesday’s lawsuit, which was filed in Huntington federal court.
The environmentalist groups claim the mines are discharging pollutants into Bullpen Fork and Right Fork of Leatherwood Creek.
Those discharges are harmful to aquatic life, according to the complaint, because high levels of conductivity and ionic chemicals – including sulfates, bicarbonate, magnesium, and calcium – are a primary cause of water quality impairments downstream from mine discharges. Conductivity of a liquid is the measure of its ability to conduct electricity.
According to the complaint, in 2011, scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency “summarized the existing science connecting conductivity and biological degradation in an EPA report entitled, ‘A Field-Based Aquatic Life Benchmark for Conductivity in Central Appalachian Streams.’”
“That report, which was peer-reviewed by scientists on EPA’s Science Advisory Board, used EPA’s standard method for deriving water quality criteria to derive a conductivity benchmark of 300 μS/cm,” the lawsuit states, citing the measure of microSiemens per centimeter. “According to the species sensitivity distribution in the benchmark, on average, five percent of species are lost when conductivity rises to 295 μS/cm, over 50 percent are lost at 2000 μS/cm, and close to 60 percent are lost at 3000 μS/cm.”
Using those measurements, the EPA found that increased conductivity in water has a “severe and clear effect” on the loss of aquatic species. A conductivity level of 300 μS/cm has a 59 percent likelihood of impairing a stream and at 500 μS/cm, a stream has a 72 percent likelihood of being impaired, the agency found.
According to the environmentalists, Fola’s activity at one mine created conductivity levels in nearby water of between 1,689 μS/cm and to 2,367 μS/cm, far above the EPA’s benchmark of 300 μS/cm.
“Excessive amounts of these pollutants degrade the water quality of Leatherwood Creek and its tributaries, make the water aesthetically unpleasant and environmentally undesirable and impair its suitability for aquatic life,” the complaint states. “Because of this pollution, Plaintiffs’ members refrain from and/or restrict their usage of Leatherwood Creek, its tributaries, downstream portions of the Elk River and associated natural resources.”
Studies have shown that pollutants from mountaintop removal coal mining operations increase cancer rates for people living around the mining site.
A Journal of Community Health study published in 2012, for instance, found that self-reported cancers rates where mountaintop removal occurs are nearly twice the rate in nearby counties with no mountaintop removal operations.
West Virginia and Kentucky, states where mountaintop removal coal mining is prevalent, lead the nation in deaths per capita from cancer and approximately 60,000 cases of cancer in Appalachia have been directly linked to mountaintop removal coal mining.
A 2009 study by Appalachian Voices showed that 135 mountains in West Virginia alone have been cleared for coal mining operations, affecting 352,000 acres of land.
The Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and West Virginia Rivers Coalition seek an injunction to stop Fola from committing violations of the mining permits it was issued.
They are represented by J. Michael Becher and Joseph Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
Fola Coal did not immediately respond Thursday to a phone call requesting comment.
Jim Kotcon, chair of Sierra Club’s West Virginia chapter, said in a statement that “Fola is trying to pass the buck on the dangerous pollution coming from its coal mines.”
“The companies who mine these sites have an obligation to clean them up,” he said. “Our lawsuit seeks to hold the mine operator responsible for stopping this pollution and fully reclaiming the sites.”