Local Public Health Activists in Wise County Hold Polluters Accountable for Dangerous Water Contamination

WISE, Virginia – Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled in favor of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Sierra Club on a citizen request for federal inspection of Red River Coal Company’s Greater Wise mine. The court found that the Department of Interior (DOI) acted improperly in denying the public health advocates’ request. The ruling was seen as a major win for local activists who had been requesting access to the mine since 2014 to test its water discharges, which they suspect are contaminating local water supplies with high levels of selenium. Appalachian Mountain Advocates represented the conservation groups in this suit.   

In addition to threatening local health, high selenium levels are also dangerous for aquatic life. Dangerous selenium concentrations in waterways can affect an entire food chain, and fish with high levels of the metal are more likely to have reproductive impairments – which can affect fish supplies that local communities depend on for food.

The public health advocates were routinely denied permission to retrieve water samples from mine by Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, and the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (a division of DOI). After years of administrative appeals, the public health groups filed a federal lawsuit against DOI and yesterday’s decision found that the citizens were arbitrarily denied their right to a federal inspection to test the mine water’s selenium levels. 

The decision is widely seen as a major win for public health in southwestern Virginia and an affirmation of the local community’s right to police the quality of its water.

In response, Matt Hepler, the resident who was denied the citizen inspection and a former staff member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, released the following statement:

“I have been waiting for this citizen inspection for a long time. It’s a shame our state agencies are fighting so hard to deny citizens their rights under the law in order to appease polluters. This decision is a major win for my community.”

Jane Branham, member of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, also released the following statement:

“It’s outrageous that it took three years and a federal lawsuit to retrieve a basic water sample from Red River Energy to make sure their mines were not putting the local community’s health at risk. Selenium is a toxic, dangerous metal that is a threat to everyone’s basic right to clean water here in Appalachia.  

“With this victory, we’ve shown Red River Energy that public health isn’t some box to be quickly checked before counting profits, it’s a fundamental requirement for doing business in our region. We are going to continue to work moving forward to make sure our water is clean and hold polluters accountable to our health and our laws.”

Media Contact: Brian Willis, 202.675.2386, Brian.Willis@sierraclub.org

Isak Howell, 540.998.7744, ihowell@appalmad.org