WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect endangered species from coal mining in Appalachia in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Pollution, razing forests and blasting is pushing aquatic animals to the brink of extinction due to heavy political interference from the Trump administration.
“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. “It’s illegal and immoral and it needs to stop.”
The lawsuit challenges the ongoing reliance on a national “biological opinion” from 1996 that was overturned in 2016 because it repeatedly failed to protect endangered species from coal mining activities.
The invalidated document was reinstated by Trump officials in April 2017 and is now being used to ram through coal mining permits in West Virginia. This is jeopardizing streams, endangered species and people alike.
“By acting in the manner that has forced us to file this lawsuit, these federal agencies are kowtowing to corporate polluters, ignoring the law—and democracy itself. They ignore, too, the fact that we humans are part of the web of life. If society fails to protect endangered species, then we fail to protect our humanity and ultimately ourselves,” said Vivian Stockman, executive director of OVEC.
The lawsuit also challenges a guidance document pushed through by political appointees that undermines protections for the Guyandotte River and Big Sandy crayfish, two species threatened with extinction due to water pollution from coal mining.
Public records revealed extensive efforts by several Trump administration appointees to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from following science and doing what is needed to protect the crayfish.
Landon “Tucker” Davis, a former coal lobbyist and Trump campaign field director who served as a policy advisor within the Office of Surface Mining, contacted Aurelia Skipwith, the current nominee to lead the Service. Davis asked Skipwith to expedite mining permits in endangered species habitat. In turn, Skipwith wrote to Greg Sheehan, then director of the Service, saying the regional office was “overstepping their bounds” by reviewing mining documents to protect the crayfish.
“The ping-pong nature of enforcement from one administration in Washington to another totally frustrates the sound science and wise observations of folks in the field who understand the Endangered Species Act,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “The scientists are the people who know that strong enforcement of the Act protects not only the smallest of critters that are officially declared ‘endangered’ but in turn also engenders a healthy environment for us larger two-legged creatures who depend on healthy water and streams where those critters live.”
“It is truly disappointing that the federal agencies charged with protecting endangered species are allowing coal mining to take priority over their core mission. Extinction is forever, and federal agencies ought to be working together to preserve our natural heritage. Coal company pillaging for profit does not justify the irretrievable loss of the ‘Wild and Wonderful’ parts of West Virginia,” said Jim Kotcon, conservation chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
Groups joining today’s lawsuit include OVEC (the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition), Sierra Club and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, all of which are represented in the lawsuit by Appalachian Mountain Advocates. The groups are asking the court to require new site-specific guidance to protect imperiled animals from coal mining rather than continuing to rely on a failed program.
Scientific studies have linked coal mining to declines in birds, fish, salamanders, crayfish, insects and freshwater mussels. More than 1 million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.
Mining also threatens nearby communities with air and water pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have now linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects.