The Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Tennessee Clean Water Network filed lawsuit May 3 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee against the Interior Dept. and Interior officials over water issues with a surface coal mine.
The lawsuit accuses the parties of violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and its implementing regulations relating to the permitting of the Sterling & Strays Surface Mine #1 in Claiborne County, Tennessee, under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).
“Defendants have unlawfully ignored the best available scientific data proving that high-conductivity ionic pollution in wastewater from surface coal mines has caused, and is causing, population declines of the ESA-protected blackside dace,” said the lawsuit. “The Sterling & Strays Surface Mine #1, a 1,088-acre strip mine within the Clear Fork of the Cumberland River (hereinafter Clear Fork or Clearfork) watershed permitted under SMCRA by Defendant U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSM), discharges or will discharge high-conductivity wastewater to creeks occupied or transiently used by the blackside dace, resulting in incidental take of individual fish and delaying the species’ recovery. OSM issued Permit #3264 for the Sterling & Strays Surface Mine #1 on July 18, 2014.
The defendants failed to complete a formal consultation on the effects of issuing this permit to ensure that the discharge of high-conductivity wastewater from Sterling & Strays Surface Mine #1 does not jeopardize the continued existence of the blackside dace, said the lawsuit.
It said the defendants continue to rely on a programmatic Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement issued in 1996 concerning regulations implementing SMCRA to evade their ESA Section 7 consultation obligations. This 13-page document contained no site-specific, species-specific information, and established unlimited incidental take levels without specifying the amount or extent of incidental take for any individual species that, if exceeded, would trigger reinitiation of consultation, the lawsuit added.
Plaintiffs are seeking declaratory, injunctive, and statutory relief, including a court order vacating the Sterling & Strays Surface Mine #1 SMCRA permit and requiring defendants’ full compliance with the procedural and substantive obligations imposed by the ESA on remand, to remedy existing harms and likely future harms to Plaintiffs’ members’ interests caused by defendants’ statutory and regulatory violations.