Focus on Mountaintop Removal Mining
Formed in 1967, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) is the state’s oldest environmental advocacy organization. Borne out of the need for battle to preserve scenic Seneca Rocks, WVHC continues today in response to a variety of ongoing challenges that threaten not only similar more widely known “special places” (e.g. Monongahela National Forest, George Washington National Forest, Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge, and Wilderness areas like Otter Creek, Laurel Fork, Dolly Sods and Cranberry ), but also those that threaten the “special-ness of place”- the health and well-being of the air, water, forests and human communities of West Virginia.
For nearly four decades the Conservancy has been a leader in citizen efforts on a variety of mining issues critical to protecting the environment and life in WV. The organization’s monthly publication, the HIGHLANDS VOICE, documents many of these efforts – from administrative and legal attempts to defend the original intent of the Surface Mine Act and Clean Water Act, to preventing acid mine drainage and insisting on adequate financial guarantees to cover the cost of reclamation at mined sites. A key aspect of our work on mountaintop removal is our longtime effort to prohibit the dumping of mine waste into headwater streams, a critical factor in minimizing the size and impact of large-scale mining. A brief overview of our involvement follows.
In 1986 WVHC successfully organized local opposition to the expansion of a 2,000 acre acid producing strip mine in Upshur county in central WV. The expansion would have included a 1-mile long valley fill in the headwaters of a native brook trout stream and a 90 foot high dam across a farm field in the watershed below. A settlement agreement in a separate 1988 litigation against the state of WV resulted in significant, though short-lived, improvements in reclamation and the stability of fills at huge strip mines.
In the early 1990’s requirements of the Clean Air Act as well as costly water treatment liabilities in the northern, higher sulfur, acid prone coalfields of WV, caused mining to shift to the southern coalfields. At the same time, tax credits enabled industry to invest in new technology and bigger machinery. Other financial incentives encouraged mining the thinner seams of coal that are layered in the southern mountains and are more difficult to mine. Mountaintop removal expanded beyond all expectations. During the ‘90’s WVHC played a key role in laying the groundwork for the growing opposition to mountaintop removal mining and in convincing regulatory agencies of the significance and overall impact of the ever-increasing number and size of fills being permitted. WVHC members participated in and reported on state sponsored mine tours, were appointed to legislative committees established to review state policies of mitigating for streams buried under valley fills, and wrote articles describing the practice and the convoluted permitting process. Members also participated in many public and media forums and debates with government and industry representatives. Appointed to the governor’s task force on mountaintop removal mining in 1998, WVHC offered a minority report that pointed to the illegality of filling streams and to the environmental and economic harm caused by mountaintop removal mining. In 1997 we compiled the first map visually documenting the extent of stream loss from mountaintop removal and valley fills in the three county area of Boone, Logan and Mingo in southern West Virginia .
A major plaintiff in the 1998 Bragg v Robertson litigation, WVHC was instrumental in convincing EPA to conduct the first ever Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the effects of mountaintop removal mining and valley fills with the intent of finding ways to reduce the impact of those activities. Although the politically tainted recommendations of the final 2005 EIS called instead for streamlining the permitting process, the scientific studies contained in the report are invaluable as official documentation of the deleterious impacts of mountaintop removal mining and valley fills. Few permits were issued while the EIS was being prepared.
The Conservancy continues its vigorous opposition to this environmentally destructive method of mining by engaging with others in litigation, education, actions, publicity and research. WVHC joined OVEC, CRMW and the Appalachian Center in comments objecting to over 40 inadequate industry applications to the Army Corps of Engineers for 404 fill permits and is currently a co-plaintiff in legal action opposing the Corps’ illegal permitting of large-scale mines without the required scientific study and review. We are also working with groups to oppose weakening amendments to environmental law, and are supporting local and regional community efforts to inform the nation and world of the travesty of justice called mountaintop removal.