Appalachian Mountain Advocates has been pursuing a number of legal cases designed to show that mining operations that cause high levels of conductivity downstream are violating water quality standards ??and their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.
That legal theory won important validation in a ruling last summer by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers.
In a case brought by Appalmad on behalf of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Sierra Club, Chambers found that conductivity pollution from mountaintop removal mining caused damage to streams in Southern West Virginia.
Conductivity measures the ability of water to transmit electricity, making it a measure of the level of ionic pollution in a stream. As Chambers wrote, high conductivity not only alters the chemistry of a stream, but results in a stream that is ?unquestionably biologically impaired, in violation of West Virginia?s narrative water quality standards.?
Narrative water quality standards don?t place numeric limits on pollutants, but instead require pollution to remain below a level that would impair a stream?s aquatic ecosystem.
The lawsuit targeted mines operated by Alpha Natural Resources in Boone and Nicholas counties in West Virginia. Appalmad presented extensive scientific evidence backing the case, including the testimony of Dr. Margaret Palmer, a respected scientist who has been studying conductivity and other pollution issues for years.
Chambers? ruling established Alpha?s liability for the pollution. The next stage will determine what Alpha must do to fix the problem. There are different treatment methods that could be used to filter out the ionic pollution, all of them quite expensive.
As with the many selenium cases Appalmad has brought against coal companies, the expensive treatment coal companies must undertake represent huge savings to state taxpayers, who would otherwise be stuck with the tab. Appalmad?s selenium cases helped convince Patriot Coal to get out of the mountaintop removal mining business.
The conductivity cases may have an even broader impact. Selenium pollution depends on geologic factors ? it?s worse in some places than others. Conductivity pollution, on the other hand, appears to occur at some level any time a valley fill is constructed or a lot of spoil material at a mine site is exposed to water.