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Groups Act to Protect Endangered Species from Destructive Coal Mining in TN

For Immediate Release: May 16, 2013

Sean Sarah, Sierra Club, 330 338-3740 [email protected]
Gregory Buppert, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-3225 [email protected]
Casey Self, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, 865-249-7488
Stephanie Matheny, Tennessee Clean Water Network, 865-522-7007 [email protected]


Groups Act to Protect Endangered Species from Destructive Coal Mining in Tennessee
Groups Allege that Federal Agencies Violated Endangered Species Act in TN Mining Approvals


Nashville, TN – Today, Defenders of Wildlife, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) and Sierra Club filed a first of its kind suit against the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleging that the government agencies violated the Endangered Species Act by approving mining permits for the Zeb Mountain and Davis Creek Area 5 surface mines in Tennessee. Sierra Club and its allies argue that OSM and the Service failed to fully consider the effects pollution from mining operations would have on the endangered Cumberland darter and the threatened blackside dace; two fresh water fish found primarily in the areas threatened by mining waste pollution from these sites. Specifically, the groups allege that OSM and the Fish and Wildlife Service have ignored the best science and data available that show how specific forms of mining pollution at these sites endanger the dace and darter.


“Extinction of endangered species is too high a price to pay for surface mining,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “The Office of Surface Mining failed in its duty to ensure endangered species were protected when it granted mining permits at Zeb Mountain and Davis Creek. Mining pollution from these sites clearly poses a risk to the dace and darter; these permits should have never been allowed to go forward.”


The groups contend that high levels of water conductivity created by mining pollution put the future of the blackside dace and Cumberland darter at risk. Conductivity is a measure of the ability of fresh water to carry an electric current. The higher the conductivity level in Appalachian streams, the more pollutants are in the water and the greater the threat to certain species of aquatic life. Conductivity is measured in microSiemens per centimeter (µS/cm) with a safe level for the darter and dace being less than 240 µS/cm. However, tests of the water downstream from the Zeb mountaintop removal mine site show conductivity ranging from 538 to 886 µS/cm – far above safe levels for the fish. While Davis Creek Area 5 has not yet begun operations, like all other surface coal mines in Appalachia the new Davis Creek mine is extremely likely to cause conductivity in local streams to exceed levels that are safe for dace. In fact, in 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed state mining permits in Appalachia and found that none of them took steps to prevent pollution that increases conductivity in streams.


“What is remarkable here is that the Service and OSM have all of the studies showing that high conductivity caused by coal mining harms these fish” said Greg Buppert, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “They’ve simply been ignoring them for years.”


Further, the groups will argue that reliance on old and outdated science to determine the safety of endangered species at or near mountaintop removal sites is arbitrary and capricious. The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to act on the best scientific data available to insure that any action an agency takes is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any threatened or endangered species. Currently, OSM and the Service rely primarily on research completed in 1996. At that time, the effects of conductivity on fresh water fish were unknown. Empirical studies undertaken since then show a strong correlation between elevated conductivity and harm to blackside dace and Cumberland darters. Because the agencies did not take that information under consideration, the groups contend, not only is there a clear violation of the Endangered Species Act, but populations of these two species are at risk of being wiped out.


 “Species like the dace and darters are totally vulnerable to destructive human activity in their watersheds, but can do nothing about it,” said Cathie Bird, a member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment. “The very least we humans can do is to demand that permitting agencies start with the best science available, then continually update their assessments of potential harm as new data comes along.”



Mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining have already caused a significant decrease in the dace and darter populations. Mountaintop removal is an extremely destructive form of coal mining. Mines clear-cut timber and undergrowth, blast open the earth, and destroy streams. This devastating practice poisons drinking water, lays waste to wildlife habitat, increases risk of flooding, and wipes out entire communities. Mountaintop removal operations frequently contaminate local water sources. They release toxic pollutants such as selenium and heavy metals. Communities near mountaintop removal mines experience elevated rates of serious health problems such as cancer and birth defects.


“Strip mining in Tennessee has polluted our waters to the point that native fish like blackside dace and Cumberland darters are barely holding on,” said TCWN Attorney Stephanie Matheny.  “If the water is too dirty for the fish, it can’t be good for people either.”


“Our mountain waterways and aquatic ecosystems are precious resources that need to be protected for future generation,” said Rita Chadwell, Sierra Club member. “They are something for our communities and region to be proud of.  I take pride in knowing that Davis Creek which runs in front of my home is special and provides a unique habitat for sensitive and rare species like the blackside dace. Davis Creek has suffered enough pollution from mining and should be left alone so the blackside dace populate can recover and my community can have a safe body of water for recreation.” 


The litigation was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Defenders of Wildlife, SOCM, TCWN and Sierra Club are represented in this action by Greg Buppert from Defenders of Wildlife and Stephanie Matheny of Tennessee Clean Water Network.


Tennessee Clean Water Network

625 Market St.

Knoxville, TN 37902


Mailing Address:

PO BOX 1521

Knoxville, TN 37902


Office: 865.522.7007

Fax: 865.525.4988