The Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition on March 20 filed suit against two subsidiaries of Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) for what the suit claims is illegal discharge of pollutants that have biologically impaired headwater streams in West Virginia.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, alleges that mine runoff from five mines operated by Elk Run Coal and Alex Energy has contaminated the water in the Laurel Creek and Twentymile Creek watersheds with sulfate and other dissolved solids that make them toxic to aquatic life. Elk Run Coal and Alex Energy are operations that Alpha picked up in a June 2011 buy of Massey Energy.
The suit is based on the same legal theory that the two groups used to obtain a recent settlement against the Fola Coal unit of CONSOL Energy (NYSE:CNX), requiring it to clean up another biologically-impaired tributary in the Twentymile Creek watershed. In both cases, the groups contend that the mining companies have violated West Virginia’s “narrative” water quality standards, which set general criteria for water quality, rather than “numeric” water quality standards, which set limits on the concentration of specific pollutants in water. Those standards are enforced by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP).
“Coal companies can mine safely and healthily,” said Jim Sconyers, Chapter Director of the West Virginia Sierra Club. “It’s a pity that the WVDEP doesn’t require them to do so, and groups like ours have to do their job. We can’t allow these companies to keep poisoning our streams.”
Compliance with narrative standards is typically determined by taking field measurements of the abundance and diversity of aquatic life in the stream, rather than by only measuring the chemicals in the discharged water, the environmental groups noted. Some tributaries of Laurel and Twentymile creeks show significant damage to aquatic life compared to that in unpolluted reference streams, they added. A large portion of the land area in these two watersheds has been disturbed by mining and valley fills. A valley fill is where rock and dirt from a mine site is placed so the company can get at the underlying coal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that nine out of 10 streams downstream from valley fills associated with coal mines are biologically impaired, the groups said. But neither the state of West Virginia nor the EPA has taken action to require compliance and cleanup of the impaired streams, the environmental groups contend. Congress authorized citizen suits under the Clean Water Act to enforce the law directly against permit violators.