DMME holds hearing on A&G’s formal appeal of Ison Rock Ridge permit application denial

BIG STONE GAP, VA – The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) held a formal appeal on July 29 for the denial of A&G’s permit application to mine Ison Rock Ridge. A&G issued the formal appeal earlier this year. Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club applaud the DMME’s original decision and have opposed A&G’s formal appeal, arguing that A&G failed to take the necessary steps in applying for the permit.

Community members from the impacted communities of Appalachia, Inman, Andover, Arno, and Derby, and SAMS members have fought the proposed Ison Rock Ridge surface mine for the last seven years. The threat of increased truck traffic, coal dust, and stream sedimentation and pollution has loomed over these communities, endangering their livelihood. The proposed valley fills of the operation would bury headwater streams and further impair Callahan Creek. Additionally, in numerous peer-review studies, communities near mountaintop removal operations have been shown to have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, lung and kidney disease, and birth defects. The destruction of Ison Rock Ridge amidst coal’s inevitable decline would have grave effects on the long-term health and viability of the area.

“I hope that this will be the end of the Ison Rock Ridge permit, justice will be done, and the people in the communities affected by the permit can finally know that our mountains will be there hopefully forever.” SAMS member and Andover resident Judy Needham said after the hearing.

The DMME denied A&G’s permit application for Ison Rock Ridge in February of last year due to the coal company’s outstanding mine permit violations in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia and failure to post the necessary bond and fees. Following today’s hearing, a ruling will be issued after written closing arguments have been submitted.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards was represented in this matter by the Sierra Club.

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Mountaintop Removal Mines are not automatically shielded; will be held accountable for unpermitted pollution

Wise County, VA – Today, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that A&G Coal Corporation, a subsidiary owned by coal billionaire Jim Justice, is responsible for toxic selenium pollution from its Kelly Branch Surface Mine in Wise County, Virginia. The ruling sets a precedent that coal mines in Virginia which produce selenium pollution will be held accountable unless they explicitly disclose the potential for discharges of that pollution to the state as part of the permit application process.

The ruling upholds an earlier district court opinion in favor of a coalition of environmental groups which brought the case against A&G, including Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, and Sierra Club.

The ruling’s significance extends beyond Mountaintop removal mining in Virginia, as it sets an important precedent for any lawsuit challenging any facility claiming a “permit shield” for discharges of pollution that are not limited by the Clean Water Act discharge (NPDES) permit. Other states covered by the 4th District Circuit Court include West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland.

Water monitoring conducted by the groups demonstrated that A&G’s Kelly Branch Mine dumped the toxic pollutant selenium into streams at levels above state water quality standards, even though the mine’s permit does not allow such pollution. The groups’ lawsuit alleged that the unpermitted pollution was in violation of the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

“Today, the courts are forcing coal billionaire Jim Justice to clean up his polluting mine in Wise County,” said Marley Green, Community Organizer with the Sierra Club in Southwest Virginia. “We are happy to see the courts uphold laws meant to protect communities and promote healthy streams. Pollutants like selenium, dumped by mountaintop removal operations, have left our creeks and rivers struggling to sustain life, and it’s past time that those responsible are held accountable.”

Selenium, a toxic element that can cause reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life, is discharged from many surface coal mining operations across Appalachia. Selenium accumulates in the tissues of aquatic organisms over time, and experts predict that waterways across Appalachia could be on the brink of collapse due to increasing levels of the pollutant.

“It’s good to see the courts standing for the people, and not bowing down to King Coal. Looking at what’s right and what’s wrong, and not just what’s best for the corporations” said Sam Broach, President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, “We need better protection from this powerful industry, and from industry tycoons like Jim Justice, to make sure that when they leave town, we’re not left holding the bill for toxic pollution.”

“This is a great decision for the people and streams of Virginia,” said Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices. “Making sure mining companies have to deal with all of their toxic pollution is crucial to the health of streams, people and local economies. In Virginia recreational fishing employs 20 times more people than surface mining does.”

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, and the Sierra Club were represented in this matter by Isak Howell and Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

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Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Efforts To Protect Appalachian Waters and Communities

Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA Efforts To Protect Appalachian Waters and Communities

Washington, D.C. — Today, a federal appeals court sided with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a large coalition of citizen groups in upholding an Obama administration policy to scrutinize pollution from severe mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the National Mining Association, the State of West Virginia, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and other coal industry groups, who brought the case against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The EPA policies were based on recent scientific studies showing that pollution from mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia is likely to degrade water quality in violation of federal Clean Water Act standards. One of those studies (Pond 2008) found that nine out of every 10 streams downstream from mountaintop removal mining were impaired. Another study found elevated levels of highly toxic selenium in streams downstream from mountaintop removal mining sites.

The coalition was represented by Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates. The groups included seven conservation and social justice groups — Coal River Mountain Watch (WV), Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (VA), Sierra Club, and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (TN) — who intervened in the lawsuit to support two initiatives: (1) guidance the EPA provided to its staff on the need to address evidence of serious harm caused by mountaintop removal mining and follow the Clean Water Act; and (2) interagency review of the worst-of-the-worst pending permit applications. The court held that the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are fully authorized to protect communities from mountaintop removal mining in this way and held that the guidance is not currently reviewable action.

The following are statements by the groups behind this victory for Appalachia:

Said Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice attorney: “The EPA did its job when it directed its staff to finally follow the law and science, and start protecting Appalachian waters and communities from mountaintop removal mining, which is associated with higher cancer, birth defects, and early death for people living nearby. The coal industry continually fights for free rein to blow up mountains and dump waste all over Appalachia, and we’re glad to see clean water and healthy communities triumph today.”

Said Jim Hecker, attorney with Public Justice: “All three of the district court decisions that the mining industry trumpeted several years ago as examples of EPA ‘overreach’ — the decisions overturning EPA’s Spruce Mine veto, the Enhanced Coordination procedure, and the conductivity guidance document — have now been reversed and EPA’s position has been upheld.”

“As baffling as it was that the Mining Association and representatives of several state governments challenged the effort by EPA and the Corps to agree upon a process by which they work together on permitting actions, it is ever so much more gratifying today that the appeals court affirmed the legality, not to mention the wisdom, of such interaction,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

”Now it’s time for EPA to get to work,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Today’s court ruling only reinforces what we already knew; EPA has a critical role to play in ensuring the safety of Appalachian waterways. States simply cannot do this job themselves and groups like the National Mining Association will stop at nothing to ensure their clients don’t have to face responsibility for pollution. Appalachian rivers, streams and communities have a fighting chance now that EPA is free to do its job.”

“This is an important step in protecting our mountain streams from the toxic discharge from mountain top removal operations and in protecting the Appalachian people from further health impacts from this destructive practice,” said Jane Branham of Virginia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “We are so relieved by this court decision because historically, our state regulatory agencies have failed to enforce existing laws. We have needed this stronger oversight by the EPA to ensure that states protect Appalachian communities.”
“By refusing to use the EPA Guidance on Conductivity and by being a party to the suit against the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, Kentucky officials have made it perfectly clear that allowing the pollution to continue is more important to them than protecting the health of Kentuckians and our communities,” said Doug Doerrfeld of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. “This runs counter to other efforts, such as the governor’s SOAR initiative, to create a better future for the region. This federal court decision is a victory for the clean water that is essential to southeastern Kentucky’s bright future.”
“Mountaintop removal has had a devastating impact on communities and on water quality,” said Dianne Bady of West Virginia–based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “We’re so thankful that EPA has taken some positive steps and that the court has upheld EPA’s plans.”

“For people who live near mountaintop removal mines there was never a question that it caused harm to people and nature,” said Cathie Bird, a member of Tennessee-based Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment. “Then scientific studies began to bear this out. Now the EPA’s science-based guidance has survived an attack from the industry. The court has ruled in support of the Clean Water Act and its role in protection of Appalachian communities.”

“This is a good ruling that allows the EPA to do its job, but it does not mean that mountaintop removal is banned or that coal is ‘over.’ It does not mean that failed state agencies such as the West Virginia Dept. of Environmental Protection will suddenly start doing their jobs, or that they will stop granting mountaintop removal permits,” said Vernon Haltom of the West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch. “We need to address the deadly human health impacts of mountaintop removal and halt new permits by passing the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act, HR 526.”

The EPA issued this water quality guidance in July 2011 to assist its staff in meeting longstanding requirements of the Clean Water Act with regard to mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia. The EPA based the guidance on two major peer-reviewed scientific reports that reveal the extent of mountaintop removal’s harm on waters.

Mountaintop removal mines often require a valid permit under the Clean Water Act and must comply with the law; and it is, in part, the EPA’s job to help make sure state permitting agencies follow the law.
The guidance improved the agency’s oversight and enforcement and directed field staff on how to follow the science in their review process.

In another document challenged in this case, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers jointly recognized the need to coordinate their independent reviews of the worst-of-the-worst pending permit applications — those which raised substantial environmental concerns — before deciding what action each agency would take on the permits.
More than a dozen peer-reviewed scientific studies link mountaintop removal coal mining with significantly increased risk of cancer, heart, lung, and kidney disease, birth defects, and premature death, even after adjusting for other risk factors. One study shows that residents of counties with surface coal mining are 63% more likely to experience certain birth defects. Another finds that cancer cases are clustered in areas with the most coal mining.



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A Report from the Picket on the Greenbrier


On July 2nd and 3rd, members of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) were joined by about 20 allies from West Virginia and Virginia in a picket and two candlelight vigils outside the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs West Virginia. The Greenbrier is home to an annual PGA golf tournament that brings thousands to the small West Virginia town to watch a tournament, all of it made possible by the profitsimage Jim Justice has extracted from Appalachian communities.


On Wednesday night, the event started with a group of about 10 holding a candle light vigil, walking through downtown White Sulphur Springs (WSS), and ending at the Greenbrier entrance. We were met by local police and a representative of the Greenbrier security force. The Deputy Sheriff, Smith, was immediately friendly and encouraged our action, as long as we did not disrupt traffic.


On Thursday, we started the picket a little after 10 AM. With signs that read “You got rich, we got sick”, “Employ local people in reclamation”, and “Hey Jim Justice, Be a good greenbrier event 123neighbor to ALL of Appalachia”, we marched a circuit between the WSS public library, the Greenbrier main entrance, and downtown WSS. Along the way we met a local exterminator, a representative of Greenbrier workers and several other local residents who had personals stories to tell of Jim Justice failing to pay his debts, and generally being a bad neighbor in his own home county.


We continued the picket in shifts, trading off after a round or two in the July sun. Throughout the afternoon we were greeted by supportive honks, and added names to our petition in support of the Justice to Justice demands.


A group of 5 split off and went to nearby Lewisburg, where many of the guests in town for the golf tournament were staying and eating during the event. The team handed out fliers, talked with local business owners and gathered petition signatures.

greenbrier event 197

The local police were generally supportive, and there seemed to be no local love lost on the hometown billionaire. We talked to many locals who had almost no idea that Justice’s wealth had been built in part on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.


While we did not get the media attention we hoped for, we feel buoyed by this action, and by the reception we received in White Sulphur Springs. We know that Justice’s corrosive business practices are felt beyond our coalfield communities, and we hope to build relationships and solidarity with those who seek justice from Jim Justice, no matter which resource he is extracting from hard working people.


From White Sulphur Springs we march on. Over the next 4 – 6 weeks, we wil be working to connect with communites impacted by Justice’s mining operations across the region, and bringing extra scrutiny and attention to on going violations on Justice affiliated operations. We are also continuing to gather petition signatures, and will plan on another delivery action in the near future.



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