A settlement agreement has been reached between a group of environmental groups?and Alpha Natural Resources over the company’s pollution from mountaintop removal mining operations.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Sierra Club ??represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates and Public Justice ? settled a lawsuit challenging Alpha’s violation of 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.
Last summer, Alpha lost a similar case,?in a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers that?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.?
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals?rejected Alpha’s appeal?of that ruling.
Under the settlement with Alpha, the company will have to try to improve the health of the streams affected by the conductivity pollution. In the likely event those actions don’t work, the company will have to treat the water to get conductivity to a level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes is not harmful to aquatic life.
Such treatment can be enormously expensive.
Days before this settlement was announced, Patriot Coal?was?sent notice that the same groups intended to sue over similar issues at?Hobet 21, West Virginia’s largest surface mine. Almost every outfall in that huge complex is discharging water with high conductivity levels.
The scientific and legal theories developed by these cases could have an enormous impact. Practically every valley fill across Central Appalachia may be?discharging water with high enough conductivity levels to impair aquatic life.
Restoring the biological integrity of all the impacted streams will be incredibly expensive. The coal companies and other entities that have profited from this mining should pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution.