Environmental Groups Sue Army Corps of Engineers for Permitting Coal Companies to Bury Streams in Appalachia

Groups Say Corps Permits Violate Clean Water Act

WASHINGTON (October 23, 2003) -- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits allowing coal companies to bury streams with mining waste would lead to the further destruction of hundreds of miles of Appalachian waterways and thousands of acres of forests, a lawsuit filed today by three environmental organizations charged. The groups, NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch, allege that Army Corps of Engineers mountaintop removal permits violate the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act. They filed the suit in federal district court in Huntington, West Virginia.

"The Army Corps of Engineers has given coal companies the green light to obliterate Appalachian streams and forests," said Daniel Rosenberg, an attorney with NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Burying hundreds of miles of streams with mining waste was not what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act 30 years ago."

Mountaintop removal is a process in which coal companies blow up mountaintops to access thin seams of coal beneath the surface. Although the companies replace some of the debris on the mountaintop after removing the coal, they dump the rest of the rocks and dirt in nearby valleys. These "valley fills" bury streams under tens of thousands of tons of waste rock and dirt, killing all aquatic life below.

For years, the Army Corps has granted coal companies permits to destroy streams under a Clean Water Act permit provision intended only for small fills that have "minimal adverse environmental effects." Using "minimal effects" permits, coal companies have buried more than a thousand miles of streams in Appalachia.

The groups allege that the Army Corps of Engineers' general permit authorizing the valley fills, called Nationwide Permit 21, violates the Clean Water Act by allowing environmental impacts that are not "minimal." In addition, the groups charge that the Corps has violated NEPA by failing to complete a full analysis of the environmental impacts of the valley fills. The groups have asked the court to declare Nationwide Permit 21 illegal, block any valley fills the Corps has already authorized, and prevent the agency from authorizing any new fills.

"It is unfortunate that citizens are forced to resort to litigation to force the Bush administration to enforce environmental protection laws passed by Congress more than 25 years ago," said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, one of the lawyers representing the environmental groups. "The administration's collusion with coal operators to undermine enforcement of these crucial laws, if allowed to continue, will not only destroy the region's forests, streams and mountains, but also its economic future."

"Big Coal has buried alive 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams, and the Corps has buried the truth by calling this major disaster a 'minimal impact'," said Jim Hecker, an attorney with the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice who also is representing the plaintiffs. "The Corps should stop twisting science and the law to satisfy industry greed, and instead make Big Coal comply with the law."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

Bush Record: Water Pollution