Here's the deal: Coalfield citizens want the last quack in the war on waters of the United States, and today they challenged the Lame-Duck-in-Chief in court to get it. Attorneys filed the challenge in federal district court in Washington, DC on behalf of six grassroots groups with hundreds of members who live on the front lines of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
The coalition elected to pursue the challenge following a last-minute repeal of the stream buffer zone rule -- an environmental law that, since 1983, has prohibited surface coal mining activities within 100 feet of flowing streams. Coalfield citizens fear that the rule change will make it easier for coal companies to dump excess mine wastes generated by mountaintop removal mining into adjacent valleys. This deadly practice has already smothered 1200 miles of Appalachian headwaters and poisoned many more with sediment and toxic pollutants that put the lives of fish, wildlife, forests and people at risk.
By its nature, mountaintop removal coal mining activity in streams and wetlands cannot help but alter a stream's physical, chemical and biological function. Such disruptions violate the Clean Water Act, a law meant to protect the integrity of waters of the United States. The complex interconnectivity of land and water -- upstream, downstream, over, under and side-to-side -- renders such violations especially insidious. Widespread disturbance of Appalachian headwaters potentially affects entire river systems such as the Ohio and Tennessee, and even beyond them to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.
The Bush Administration's blatant disregard for science in its consideration of stream buffer zones has come under attack throughout the rule change process. At a 2007 hearing in Knoxville, TN, Dr. Patrick Mulholland, an aquatic ecologist in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, submitted a letter signed by 36 US colleagues -- a list that reads like a Who's Who in aquatic science -- into the public record on the proposed rule. Mulholland testified that there is definitive scientific evidence that headwater streams are of critical importance to downstream hydrology, water quality, and aquatic life. He said numerous scientific studies show that use of stream buffer zones with intact native vegetation is "the best means available to minimize damage to these functions and resources resulting from disturbances upslope."
It's not just grassroots citizens and aquatic scientists who criticize the Bush Administration's aquacidal exit strategy. Kentucky's Gov. Steven Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, and Representatives Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth each wrote letters to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson asking him not to sign off on the repeal of the stream buffer zone rule.
In Tennessee, grassroots groups applauded Governor Phil Bredesen who wrote Johnson on behalf of their state, pointing out holes in the analysis of potential impacts and alternatives, and urging the EPA to reject the new rule.
"We were holding the line against mass decapitation of our mountains by the coal industry," said Ann League, Vice President of the Board of Save Our Cumberland Mountains. "But with stream buffer zone protection rules now essentially buried under a pile of mine waste, we're very worried about what could happen here in Tennessee."
For many coalfield citizens in West Virginia, Kentucky and southwestern Virginia who for many years have endured the deforestation, explosions, water pollution and stream loss imposed on them by mountaintop removal mining, the situation is already catastrophic. For them, aquacide has become genocide.
"It appears OSM and EPA have finally and totally caved to industry, revising the rule that had become too inconvenient to enforce and turning a blind eye to damage being done to our headwater streams and mountain communities they support" said West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Mining Chair Cindy Rank. "All the tears in Appalachia can never restore those streams, nor bring back what has already been lost."
Grassroots groups filing the complaint are Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and WV Highlands Conservancy.
Attorneys representing the six groups are with Earthjustice, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance.For a copy of the complaint filed today in federal district court in Washington, DC, please visit: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/sbz-rule-final-complaint-12-19.pdf