Lawsuit alleges fed is failing to protect threatened species

Published 11:40 am Tuesday, November 21, 2023

By Liam Niemeyer

Kentucky Lantern

Two environmental advocacy groups are suing federal agencies for allegedly failing to implement conservation protections for hundreds of coal mines, including those in Eastern Kentucky, whose discharges into waterways could harm endangered and threatened aquatic life.

Appalachian Voices and the Center for Biological Diversity, in a lawsuit filed in federal district court Wednesday, alleged hundreds of coal mines across Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia lack required environmental protection plans given their proximity to the aquatic habitat of species that are threatened or endangered. The lawsuit lists the Big Sandy crayfish, Guyandotte River crayfish and the Candy Darter as three species “imperiled” by coal mining impacts.

The lawsuit states a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2020 requires surface coal mining and reclamation operations seeking a federal permit must also create a “protection and enhancement plan” if such operations could affect nearby threatened and endangered species. Such a protective plan is required to include measures to protect habitats of species during mining or reclamation.

According to the lawsuit, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has “failed to properly implement the oversight” of making sure coal mines miles upstream from the habitat of at-risk species have protective plans.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lawsuit states, also has failed to provide timely feedback on such protection plans for permits and “ignored the best available science” in allowing dozens of permits in Kentucky to go without protection plans.

Willie Dodson, a field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, in a statement said better protection for rivers and creeks can also help the well-being of communities alongside threatened and endangered species.

“It’s well past time that regulators do their jobs to ensure that the coal industry abides by the law and reduces water pollution that harms communities as well as at-risk species,” Dodson said in his statement.

The lawsuit specifically states Dodson has “complained to Kentucky” about the lack of a protection plan for the Big Sandy crayfish near the Hunts Branch surface coal mine in Pike County, which drains into Knox Creek, and that Dodson plans to continue to monitor the crayfish and water quality at the creek.

Emails requesting comment sent Friday to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were not immediately returned.