Appalachia, Va. – The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled Monday that A & G Coal is responsible for discharging toxic selenium from their Kelly Branch mine into nearby Callahan Creek. The Court held that A & G failed to tell regulators that the mine could release selenium pollution, and therefore the company's permit did not shield it from responsibility so the discharges were illegal. The case was brought by the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices.
“A & G Coal has had a long standing careless approach to protecting water sources in Southwest Virginia. This ruling has put A & G on notice that their cavalier attitude toward protecting the quality of our water was not acceptable,” said Barbara Williamson, a member of the SAMS Board of Directors.
“This is good news for the communities who fish, swim and play downstream from these destructive and dangerous mountaintop removal mining operations. Companies like A & G have been polluting our water for far too long. We applaud the decision to hold A & G accountable for their harmful pollution and we hope all mountaintop removal mining companies will be forced to bear the true costs of the harm they’re causing to the streams, land and people of Appalachia,” said Glen Besa, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director.
Water monitoring conducted by the groups showed that A & G’s Kelly Branch Mine in Wise County was dumping the toxic pollutant selenium into streams at nearly three times above state water quality standards, even though the mine’s permit did not allow for such pollution. The ruling held that A & G was responsible for these unlawful discharges even though the company argued that they should be shielded from the liability.
“Selenium is proving to be a critical water quality issue in many parts of the country, especially Central Appalachia. This decision is an important step in properly enforcing the Clean Water Act and protecting water quality in Southwestern Virginia,” said Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices.
“Clean water, healthy air and safe food are essential for good health, but people’s health in the coal producing counties of Appalachia is not where it should be due to pollution from mountaintop removal mining. This ruling is great news for all the local residents that have worked hard to make our water a little safer, but there is still much more that needs to be done to make our water, air and families healthy. Every victory for our most precious resource, water, is a reason to celebrate,” said Ben Hooper a member of SAMS.
Selenium, a toxic element that causes reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life, is discharged from many surface coal mining operations across Appalachia. Selenium accumulates in the tissues of aquatic organisms over time, and experts predict that waterways across Appalachia could be on the brink of collapse due to increasing levels of the pollutant. Today’s court victory represents the first such action to protect rivers and streams in Virginia from this harmful byproduct of mountaintop removal coal mining.
The court ordered A & G Coal to apply for a permit that addresses their selenium pollution and begin daily monitoring for selenium. Additionally, the court has retained jurisdiction over the case to oversee the permitting process and may still assess penalties at a later date.
The Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, and the Sierra Club were represented in this matter by Isak Howell, Ben Luckett and Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.